Times Staff Writer

No one can accuse the Laguna Art Museum--which officially reopens today after a $1.6-million reconstruction--of acting like a shrinking violet.

The building’s new exterior color is stylishly pink--a traffic-stopping, almost glitzy pink--that hardly fits the museum’s longtime image as a staid institution.

Why the exterior splash?

“When we decided to redo our building, we wanted to make it really stand out, to tell people this museum is going places,” explained museum director William Otton. “We think we’ve done just that. It’s a bold statement about our future as a more activist institution.”


Up to now, the Laguna Art Museum--whose roots date back to the founding of Laguna Beach as an art colony 68 years ago--has been regarded as a provincial bastion of artistic conservatism.

Now, backers said, the museum aspires to be not only more venturesome but also worthy of regional recognition. (Last fall the name was changed from Laguna Beach Museum of Art to Laguna Art Museum to give the institution a punchier, more regional title.)

And, backers added, they’re out to strengthen what they view as their exhibiting role among the Southern California’s museums.

“Our focus is California art, especially Southern California, and we believe this focus will set us apart from most other museums of the region,” Otton said.

“No, we’re not abandoning our roots in traditional and historical art. But we want to do much more in introducing new and challenging artists and concepts.”

The rebuilding of the museum’s 56-year-old beach-bluff home off the Pacific Coast Highway is the most obvious change.

The museum was closed in April, 1985, for the reconstruction. Expanded from 9,000 square feet to 19,000 square feet, the three-level structure now boasts nine galleries and double its former exhibition space. Storage, exhibit-preparation and office areas have been increased, and the lighting and security systems updated.

The museum’s fund-raising target is $2.2 million--$1.6 million for the structural expansion and renovation, the rest for equipment and furnishings and for exhibitions and educational projects.

According to Marla Bird, the museum’s development committee chairwoman, $1.7 million has been given or pledged. The supporters, she said, include such more recent patrons as Thomas Tierney, the museum’s current board president, as well as such longtime donors as the Harry G. Steele Foundation.

When Otton assumed the director’s post in 1981, the Laguna Art Museum was already preparing expansion plans. Since then, the museum’s expansion ambitions have been dramatically reflected in exhibitions and financial matters. The annual operating budget, $137,000 five years ago, is now $708,000. Museum membership has increased from 1,350 to 2,100.

Otton said that the museum has changed a “bewilderingly unfocused” exhibitions program to a balanced mix of contemporary art and earlier California material.

For example, he said, the two major exhibitions mounted for this month’s reopening:

--"Early Artists in Laguna Beach: The Impressionists,” an 83-work show covering the 1918-1928 period and featuring the local colony’s founding artists, including Clarence Hinkle, Joseph Kleitsch, Edgar Payne, Guy Rose, Marion Wachtel and William Wendt.

--"California Contemporary: Works From the Security Pacific Collection,” a 50-work show that includes works by Tony Berlant, Charles Garbedian, D.J. Hall, Helen Lundeberg and Michael Todd.

(Both exhibitions will open to the public next Tuesday. Today’s reopening reception at 6 p.m. is by invitation only.)

During its construction period, the museum has presented exhibitions at a rent-free “satellite facility” at the South Coast Plaza Mall in Costa Mesa.

The Laguna Art Museum board of trustees has yet to decide whether to continue that operation after the current lease expires Dec. 31. The museum’s staffing and other operational costs at the mall site are now $190,000 a year.

“It’s a matter of economics for us,” said museum board president Tierney.

“Right now, we can’t say for sure what our mall status is--not until our main facility is reopened and safely launched. It’s a case of first things first.”