Newport Art Museum Hails Founders

They faced major obstacles from the start: no funds, no curator, no gallery space. But the 13 women who banded together to bring modern art to Orange County a quarter of a century ago never doubted their cause.

They had friends. They knew how to work hard. And they figured the community was ready for fine art exhibits of its own.

Their timing, savvy and work paid off--for the group as well as for the county. On Tuesday, the Newport Harbor Art Museum honored its founders with a dinner for 300 friends and colleagues at the Newport Harbor Yacht Club.

Dubbed "Rendezvous in Balboa," the nostalgic evening might well have been called "How to Succeed by Really Trying."

"We were the 13, the original ones, but we had a lot of people who helped us," said Mrs. Howard Lawson, one of the four founders attending the tribute. Also present were founders Mrs. Alan Mickle, Mrs. John Hurndall and Mrs. E. Avery Crary. Mrs. Richard Winckler is ill. Mrs. Rexford Brandt, Mrs. David Curtis, Mrs. Lyman Farwell and Mrs. James Stoddard were out of town. Mrs. Dorothy Ahmanson, Mrs. Howard Chastain, Mrs. Rolla Hayes Jr. and Mrs. Myford Irvine are deceased.

Pastel balloons hovered on silver leashes while cocktails were served at dusk under a tent at harbor's edge. Modesty ruled among the founders as they did their best to distribute credit among their peers. If anyone was singled out for praise it was Mrs. Winckler, who in 1962 gathered a dozen of her friends and formed the Fine Arts Patrons of Newport Harbor. For the first few months, they hung paintings on loan from local artists in city hall but soon rented space in the Balboa Pavilion to use as a gallery.

"My mother would be very proud if she were here tonight," said David Winckler, who arrived from Sacramento with his wife, Judy, to attend the celebration. Winckler, a real estate broker, reminisced about his mother's art--her landscapes and seascapes and particularly a picture she did of 7-year-old David with his wagon, which now hangs in his son's room.

"Mom was unbelievably strong and very persuasive," Winckler said. "She never had a bad word to say about anybody, and she had a way of neutralizing opposition with . . . love. I guess that's how she got so much done."

Triumphs Recalled

The triumphs of those early years were displayed in montages lining the walls of the Yacht Club. The panels included photographs, programs, reproductions of artworks and yellowed newspaper clippings--reminders of exhibits of the work of Morris Graves, Rico Lebrun, Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Rauschenberg and many others.

In the city hall-Pavilion days, the founders and their friends were busy soliciting art, painting gallery walls, matting and hanging paintings and designing catalogues.

"You name it; we did it," Mrs. Mickle said. "What was amazing really was that there we were, doing things for a museum that we wouldn't have done at home for anything . I remember one of the girls came in one day and said, 'Am I crazy? I just paid a baby sitter so I can come here and scrub floors!' "

Mrs. Hurndall, a founder and a member of the "Rendezvous" steering committee, said: "It was a lot of effort, but it was also a lot of fun. The beauty of it back then was that we were such close friends. We were in harmony. We had very little conflict."

Newport Harbor Art Museum Director Kevin Consey said the visionary spirit of the founders and their "sense of unified mutual goal" has characterized the Board of Trustees of the museum.

Consey said he is finishing a feasibility study and selecting an architect for the projected new museum on the 10-acre, $10.5-million property, a gift from the Irvine Co. He hopes to hold the dedication for the site next summer.

As the sky darkened, guests moved inside to feast on salad with bay shrimp, veal with asparagus, and cheesecake with fresh strawberries. Bill Tole's 16-piece orchestra lit into Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller standards.

Between the entree and dessert, Newport Beach Mayor John C. Cox Jr. read a proclamation honoring the museum founders.

Other longtime Patrons and members of the evening's steering committee included Mrs. Harvey Somers, Mrs. Richard Steele, Mrs. Charles Ullman and Mrs. Robert Barnes.

The invitations may have included peel-and-stick masks--fashionable eye wear for upscale Lone Rangers--but the 550 guests who attended the South County Community Clinic Auxiliary's dinner-dance and auction had nothing to hide.

"Where's everybody's mask?" wondered Estrellita Berkowitz on Friday night, peering out from an outrageous feathered headdress she had bought for the occasion. Never mind that hers was the only formal mask in evidence. "I love to wear things like this," said Berkowitz, wife of Dr. Frederick Berkowitz, who donated $10,000 worth of cosmetic surgery to the auction.

Expenses for the $100-per-person fund-raiser at Hotel Meridien in Newport Beach were underwritten by private and corporate donations, allowing the event's estimated $112,000 proceeds to go directly to the clinic. "It takes money to make money," said the auxiliary's president, Gaye Birtcher, of the successful underwriting campaign. Birtcher is the wife of Arthur Birtcher, chairman of the clinic's board.

Browsed at Tables

Amid decorations of red roses and white carnations, guests browsed at auction tables, scribbling bids for dozens of items ranging from a golf game at the Links in Monarch Beach to a shiny beige "Kohler elongated water closet."

"I want this toilet!" said Lyle Vik as he queued up to bid. Vik got his wish--and a diamond bracelet for his wife, Barbara.

In the Deauville Ballroom, auxiliary member Martha Gresham and her husband, Richard, set the tone for the night by taking a solo turn on the dance floor as the seafood pastry appetizer plates were cleared (with salad, filet mignon and passion fruit custard still to come). After that, there was no keeping dancers in their seats until the music gave way to a live auction. "Isn't this fantastic?" said auxiliary member Dolores Frost, who, with friend and fellow member Dody Biebelberg organized fund-raisers for the clinic for three years, beginning when it was established in 1982. "Those first three years, it was just Dody and me out there trying to shake, rattle and roll donations out of the community. We were going door to door, begging for $20, $30. . . ."

The extra zeros on this year's donation cards put a smile on the face of Dick Ruiz, director of the clinic's fiscal and developmental affairs.

"It's a terrible commentary that we have people in need in the south county," said Ruiz, noting that while the San Juan Capistrano clinic is in the black--and looking for a larger location--annual operating costs have hit the quarter-million mark. An estimated 6,000 south county residents are expected to use the health-care, psychological, social and food services provided by the clinic this year.

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