Research on Southland's Turn-of-Century Artists Pays Off for New Curator

Michael McManus, the new chief curator of the Laguna Art Museum, admits he wasn't selected for the job "because I have a lot of experience in trafficking exhibits." Indeed, the 35-year-old former teacher of freshman composition at UC San Diego had never been a curator before. But, he said, "I had the right interests and background, and was young enough (to live on the $25,000 salary), and had enough energy."

His chief drawing card: He had done research in Southern California art of the period 1890 to World War I, and it happened to dovetail with the museum's historical emphasis.

Everett Gee Jackson, one of the oldest surviving members of the plein-air painters of Southern California, has been one of McManus' pet projects. He has photographed the 88-year-old man's art collection and has devoted many hours to interviewing him and his few surviving peers.

Such virtually forgotten artists as Maurice Braun, Charles Reiffel, Ethel Greene and Anna and Albert Valentien are among the painters McManus would like to exhibit at the museum someday. "I have affection for these people like you'd have for an aunt or uncle," he said.

Valentien, a former ceramics decorator who died in 1925 "a heartbroken man," according to McManus, had devoted years to painting thousands of varieties of California wildflowers for a publication commissioned by a wealthy patron. But the patron's circumstances changed, and the plates were never published.

They still exist and, McManus said with curatorial warmth, "they haven't been shown in years."

McManus' visits to garage sales and antique stores in the environs of San Diego have yielded works by some of the members of Southern California's close-knit, early 20th-Century art world. In 1977, his off-the-beaten-track rummagings turned up a painting by San Diego artist Charles Arthur Fries for a couple of hundred dollars, which he sold a few years later for a few hundred more.

"Since that time, the market for those works has increased dramatically," McManus said. "In two or three years prices jumped to the thousands, a decade later to hundreds of thousands. . . . In San Diego (at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, where McManus was an exhibition fabricator), we did shows and promotions that contributed to . . . the elevation of the artists' work. They were instrumental in rehabilitating reputations, in bringing people forward. And prices have escalated."

McManus is outraged at the practices of "dealers who hunt these old people down . . . call them real early in the morning or late at night" and offer very low prices for their work, knowing it is worth much more. But when he tells the artists not to honor such agreements, he said, they inevitably feel obliged to keep their word.

At the museum, McManus hopes that good will and firm promises will help fill the major gaps in the collection. He feels the 1930s need "consolidation," the '40s are "unexplored," the '50s "need more" and the '60s "a lot more." Not to mention artists from earlier in the century who are unrepresented in the museum's holdings.

"It's a small collection with some very fine pieces," he said. "It's representative of the museum, not at the 23,000-plus square feet that it is now, but of what it was in the early '80s."

Museum acquisitions are made through a minuscule $9,000 budget allocation and with money contributed on an ad hoc basis by members of the Historical Collectors Council and the Contemporary Collectors Council. (During fiscal year 1986-87, this sum was $77,895.)

At present, escrow accounts hold several thousand dollars earmarked for purchase of a William Wendt and a Roland Reiss, whenever works of sufficient quality--and reasonable price--can be located.

McManus said he hopes to buy "a canvas or two a year without extraordinary financing."

Beyond that, he said, "I tell . . . collectors, 'Just give it to us.' "

And their response? "They smile."

A contributing editor of Artweek magazine and a graduate of UC San Diego's master's program in critical theory and 19th- and 20th-Century art history, McManus has a particular interest in art criticism. He eagerly showed trustees copies of Arts Magazine and Flash Art with articles about artists whose works are in the "Morality Tales" exhibit that closed last month.

"They looked at it and said, 'That's nice,' " he said. "They'd like to see us written up in Connoisseur, Vanity Fair or Town and Country."

With the exception of brief brochure essays for "Jane Gottlieb: Photographs" and an exhibit of work by sculptor Michael Davis and painter Lawrence Gipe (shows scheduled by the previous administration), viewers will have to wait until a March exhibit of realist paintings by Kathleen Marshall to see the McManus imprint on the museum's exhibitions.

Among the artists McManus wants to highlight are Southern California-based Italo Scanga (with a selection of his prints) and Manny Farber (the flower paintings), photographer Judy Coleman, painter Sam Francis (early work) and furniture maker Roy McMakin.

He also wants to snag a traveling exhibit of paintings by Los Angeles artist Ruth Weisberg and to show the work of Faith Ringgold, whom he calls "the pre-eminent black American woman artist working today." A continuous program of site-specific installations by regional artists is another goal.

All these ideas, however, need to be approved by the museum's board of trustees. McManus is particularly interested in "seeing a good balance of gender in our programming" as well as in "American ethnic representation," and he wonders aloud if the board will permit him to venture into the non-mainstream territory that some of his interests reflect.

Yet on the whole, his view is a sunny one. "I'm interested in the positive expression of American culture," he said. "I'm interested in an activism that's becoming an optimism."

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