Newport Art Museum's $50-Million Next Wave

It's a real California story. The Beach Boys ought to record it. Call it "How the Newport Harbor Art Museum Keeps Catching the Wave." This time they plan to do it by unfurling a $50-million fund-raiser to build an idyllic new museum by designer-label architect Renzo Piano on a prime 10-acre, $10.5-million plot donated by the Irvine Co. It will be their fourth big wave and a nice way to mark their 25th anniversary.

In 1962, the museum started out as a little deuce kunsthalle zipping around doing hip '60s shows. Their garage was the old Balboa Island pavilion where decades of teens in search of decadence had danced to clarinet and saxophone. Summer romance under paper moons. What a great spot for art shows. They held art history classes in the yacht club. They were first with Ed Ruscha and Joe Goode. They showed Photorealism before the artists could copy the snapshots right and it was still fun, fun, fun.

The pavilion had good vibrations, but it was small and so the museum went on a surfin' safari in the warmth of the sun. They found this old printing plant right on the beach nestled between hot dog stands and surfer girls and there the sages decreed what was possibly the world's funkiest art museum (clean though). Tom Garver came down from San Francisco to direct and caught the wave. He even did a show of academic salon art a decade before revivalism was fashionable.

By then it was the '70s, and clean, cool, polite, brainy Minimalism was in. The boardwalk was no place for white canvases with one stripe. Suppose somebody squirted mustard on them? Squirt mustard on an Abstract Expressionist and you might make it better, but mustard stains on Minimalism are like wine spilled on a white linen suit. It don't look right.

There were those who regretted it, but the museum had to get off the beach before daddy took the T-Bird away. In 1977, they finished their first brand-spanking new, very own museum by local architects Langdon and Wilson. Nestled in Newport Center surrounded by typical Orange County corporate-pastoral high-rises and shopping malls, NHAM entered its BMW-Yuppie phase. The building is bland, but it has all the proper appurtenances from cafe to bookstore, not to mention 10,000 feet of exhibition space and a nice, small permanent collection.

Like any museum, NHAM has had an identity crisis and internal strain, but the boxy building with the Tony DeLap sculpture out front has been good to it. Director Kevin Consey started out as a 27-year-old Wunderkind exec running a San Antonio museum recycled from a brewery. Newport's leading curator, Paul Schimmel, is an energetic young guy widely considered among the smarter curatorial talents.

In the 11 years NHAM has been in Newport Center, its temporary exhibitions have floundered into excessively superficial modishness, but they have never ceased to surprise with the thoughtfully offbeat or unexpected coups like fine exhibitions of Edward Hopper and Edvard Munch.

Schimmel leans sympathetically to art ignored or undervalued in the rush of fashion and has done important work in bringing back the virtues of scorned movements like the Abstract Expressionist second generation or artists such as David Park and John Graham.

Years back, the museum burned its fingers on an exhibition by a group of Bay Area performance artists inclined to run afoul of the guardians of the public weal by sending their feces through the mail or taking to the streets protesting social injustice. Since then, NHAM has not been inclined to the scarier edges of the avant-garde, but then neither has the avant-garde. All the same, one notes that this year's schedule includes a survey of the now-reconstructed renegade performance artist Chris Burden along with enticing subjects like the randomness-and-chance artist Barry Le Va plus shows about New York figurative expressionism in the '50s and L.A. Pop in the '60s.

But what about the new museum?

Consey, hefty, bearded and now an old duffer of 36, explained it all in his office while drinking a Diet Coke.

"We are trying to stay inside the curl of the wave of our success," he said making a surfing gesture with his flat hand.

He described the museum's disappointment when a plan to move to a nearby location in Newport Center went belly-up because the proposal was part of a general local master plan that was turned down by Orange County voters. Artniks perked up when the Irvine Co. offered a 10-acre $10.5-million gift of land bordered by busy Pacific Coast Highway and MacArthur Boulevard. They asked an outfit that researches fund-raising campaigns to find out if they had a fighting chance of raising $50 million to do the job and the wise men said yes.

"We plan to go public with the capital campaign around April," Consey said. "First we want to get firm commitments from our board for $10 million. Then with the value of the property we'll have $20 million in hand to prove we are serious."

Meantime they surveyed some 125 architectural firms before they settled on Italian architect Renzo Piano, the designer of both Paris' popular widget Pompidou Center and the recently opened Menil Collection building in Houston.

"We liked Renzo's ability to listen to clients. He really pays careful attention. They say that Georges Pompidou really wanted an aggressive building for Beaubourg. The story is that when he first saw the model with all those machine-like painted pipes on the outside he laughed and said, 'That will make them scream!' The Menil building was completely opposite. Dominique di Menil is supposed to have said she wanted a building that was small on the outside and big on the inside and he delivered this very introverted building that fits right into the Texas domestic houses surrounding it yet has something distinctive about it.

"We also wanted somebody who had done a museum before. Why let an architect learn on our nickel? We didn't want somebody who had designed a museum in California. If we used Isozaki, Meier or Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, it would make us look like provincials copying L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, the Getty or the County Museum."

Consey seemed modest almost to the point of caution about the prospects for the new complex, which will open around 1992 if all goes well. Despite a projection of tripled gallery space and greatly expanded library, educational trappings and amenities in cafes and park-like grounds, Consey said he expects the new NHAM to remain a little brother to the modern programs at MOCA and LACMA, pursuing its talent for surprising sleepers and enlightening curatorial ideas.

"I guess if I seem subdued it's because I have to mediate between a lot of new ideas and the board's concern that it doesn't get too expensive. The truth is I'm damned excited," he said.

The juncture of MacArthur Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway looks like any intersection with a very big vacant lot in its arms. Traffic rolls by. A carpet store and fast-food emporium stand across the coast road with a hill to the south planted with affluent houses with excellent ocean views. The museum site doesn't have a sea view from the ground. Piano can go as high as 36 feet to get one, but that's all. Orange County has strict rules about blocking the other guy's view, attested to by the fact that three pathetic evergreens have been lopped off at the required height.

"I don't see how trees can block anybody's view," Consey sighed. "They are the view."

Piano had just been in town looking over the site. Naturally he doesn't have a plan yet, but he's excited about the prospects of the big site and the idea of what he calls "the interpenetration of functions," making different parts of the museum flow together to create a new mix between, say, art and film and then adding how they mix with education. He envisions a phased museum that can be added to, even including studios and quarters for visiting artists.

Mainly he is preoccupied with the automobile. The museum will not get significant foot traffic. People will drive there on purpose and to him that means they need not just a museum but a place to arrive. That suggests a free-standing landmark that's attractive aside from its function as a museum, something like the amusing grounds and architecture of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

"It's always fascinating to get the reaction of a European to our life style in California. Renzo hasn't owned a car for 12 years. He was amazed by the way we drive ridiculously short distances. Our cars are part of our bodies," Consey said.

And clearly crucial to the fourth wave of NHAM where everybody is determined not to have a museum that it is building surrounded by a parking lot. Maybe they could have a drive-through museum. Maybe the cars could be the art. Maybe people can stand on pedestals and docent cars can teach civilian cars people-appreciation.

It's still a California story, but no Beach Boys song seems to cover it this time.

Standing on the lot, one vaguely hears Janis Joplin cackling, "Oh Lord, won'tcha buy me a Mer-say-deez Benz. . . ."

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