Shortly after Michael McManus took over as chief curator of the Laguna Art Museum last fall, he began hearing about a valuable cache of 20th-Century art owned by the Newport-Mesa Unified School District and displayed in the district's four high school libraries.
As unlikely as that seemed, McManus took a look and found a collection of preponderantly museum-quality works that reflect the evolution of Southern California art from plein-air to minimalist paintings.
He also discovered that there was no more appropriate place for the Ruth Stoever Fleming Collection of Southern California Art, named for the Newport Harbor High School librarian who started the exhibit that grew into one of the most prestigious juried art shows on the West Coast between 1946 and 1966.
"The thing that fascinates me," McManus said, "is that an American high school could be a cultural force: The idea that a high school would be the institution that would pull together a collection that would have the major Edgar Payne (work) from the 1920s, the Bob Irwin abstract Expressionist canvas from the late 1950s, the fine Frederick Hammersley abstract classicist work in 1963 and the Edie Danieli from the Op era."
Just as fascinating to McManus was the caliber of professionals enlisted to judge the contest each year. The jury for the 1966 exhibit, he said, was typical: William Wilson, the most prominent art critic on the West Coast; Tony Delap, geometric abstract artist, and Maurice Tuchman, senior curator of 20th-Century art at the Los Angeles County Art Museum.
Begun as a way to increase students' exposure to the world of art, the annual Newport Harbor Art Exhibit competition invited Southland painters to submit their best oils or watercolors. Each year, several hundred works would be submitted while a professional jury composed of some of the biggest names in Southern California art would chose only 60 or 70 for showing in the high school gymnasium.
At the end of the weeklong exhibition, the school district would purchase the winning oil and watercolor, adding them to an art collection begun in the mid-'30s when graduating seniors would buy a painting as their senior class gift to the school.
By the time the annual art exhibit ended in 1966, the school district had amassed an impressive 56-piece collection, one that reflects the evolution of styles in Southern California art from the plein-air paintings of the 1920s to the minimalist paintings of the mid-'60s.
After the final exhibit in 1966, the collection had been dispersed among the district's four high schools: Newport Harbor, Corona del Mar, Costa Mesa and Estancia.
But over the years, supervision of the paintings became lax. Many wound up in district offices. Some were damaged. And others were unaccounted for until 1984, when Newport Harbor High School librarian John McGinnis began an inventory of the collection that led to its restoration.
"They got traded like baseball cards," McGinnis said. "Those that were popular were clung to by certain people, and the others they'd put in some closet or behind a filing cabinet. That's what made them difficult to find."
McGinnis found one painting, a 1953 Jack Zajac oil portrait titled "Papaya Vendor," on top of an air-conditioning duct behind a filing cabinet. ("It's a beautiful painting, but they thought it was depressing," he said.) A Phil Dyke painting, "Sunset and Sails," was found in a closet: Face up. With papers stacked on top. ("Fortunately, it's painted on Masonite rather than canvas and could withstand the weight," McGinnis said.)
But the worst example of the poor state the collection had fallen into is Thomas Hunt's "Snow Scene." The 28-by-30-inch oil painting had been found a year before in the bushes outside a classroom window. "It looked like it was hit with a baseball or something," McGinnis said. "It was canvas and it was in terrible condition, badly cracked."
McManus had seen a portion of the collection years ago, but after hearing that the collection had been restored he was curious to see if its quality was as good as was claimed. He found out in May when McGinnis took him on a tour of the four high school libraries.
"That was it. I was convinced," McManus said. "There is some unevenness in the selection, frankly, but going through the highlights of the collection, there is no question it has a preponderence of museum-quality paintings."
The result of McManus' tour is that today, the Ruth Stoever Fleming Collection of Southern California Art begins a three-month exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum. The exhibition, which runs though Nov. 6, represents the first museum showing of the collection.
But it's just the latest twist in a story that is rich in the cultural and social history of Newport Beach.
The story began in 1935, when Newport Harbor High School Principal Sidney Davidson, who was also superintendent of the single high school district, suggested that the graduating seniors buy a painting as their class gift. They did, purchasing Hunt's "Snow Scene" and establishing a tradition followed by succeeding graduating classes.
By 1945, the school owned nine paintings, including "The Great White Peak" by Edgar Payne, a founder and the first president of the Laguna Beach Art Assn. Payne's painting of Mont Blanc in Europe had won the artist an honorable mention in the Paris Salon in 1923. (McManus notes: "The Edgar Payne is a masterwork. . . . It's debatably his finest canvas.")
By 1945, however, the students were balking at the idea of being told what to buy as a class gift. And it's at this point that Ruth Stoever Fleming, the school librarian since 1938, entered the picture.
Fleming, now 77 and living in Leisure World in Laguna Hills, recalled: "We'd bring a couple of paintings down from Los Angeles for the students to view, but they didn't have much opportunity to chose something and they were losing interest in it. I felt they needed to know more about it, to see more art. They were inclined to pick the largest painting rather than the best."
To increase the students' exposure to art, Fleming proposed that the school conduct an annual professional show of Southern California artists.
The area Chamber of Commerce was enlisted as sponsor, providing $300 in purchase prize money. Fleming, who had no background in art, received help from a friend, painter Rex Brandt of Corona del Mar, in rounding up professionals to serve as jurors. And in the spring of 1946, the first Newport Harbor Art Exhibit was held in the school library.
A jury composed of an artist, an art critic, a ceramist, a high school art teacher and a community leader chose two winning watercolors: one of the Newport jetty by Rex Brandt and a Newport Harbor scene by Dan Lutz. And for the next four days, with the PTA serving tea, students and members of the community were given a chance to view all 75 of the submitted paintings. Fleming's educational mission was accomplished: "Instead of everyone talking about sports in the locker room, they were talking about paintings and art."
Although Fleming retired in 1960, she continued her involvement with the exhibit as a member of the district's newly formed Art Advisory Committee.
By this time the Newport Harbor Art Exhibit was becoming a nationally recognized competition and in 1962 the largest number of paintings in the exhibit's history were submitted, 800, while the jury chose 82 for exhibition.
As a reflection of the times, the submissions by 1966 had become increasingly more abstract and there was criticism from the community.
The school district awarded more than $1,000 in prize money that year, but faced with failing school bond elections, district officials decided they could no longer afford to support the annual art exhibit.
The Newport Harbor Art Exhibit of 1966 was the last and is where the story faded for a time.
It picks up again in early 1984, when John McGinnis, the school's librarian since 1980, decided to find out if the collection was still intact.
His monthlong search uncovered all but one of the paintings. (It turned up a year later.) A committee composed of district representatives and community members was formed to clean and restore the paintings and to plan an exhibition of the collection.
In June, 1984, the school board renamed the collection the Ruth Stoever Fleming Collection of Southern California Art in tribute to the woman who had been most instrumental in its creation. Fleming, with characteristic modesty, recalled that she was "astounded" by the honor. "I knew nothing of that," she said, laughing: "I think it's a mouthful, don't you?"
Caught up in the spirit of the renewed attention to the district's art collection, the Class of 1984 donated a Millard Sheets' watercolor to the school as its class gift--the first class to add to the collection since 1945.
But the crowning glory to the collection's resurrection came in April, 1985, when the collection, for the first time in 20 years, went on exhibit for one week in the Newport Harbor High School library.
As a result of the exhibit, Newport Harbor High School received the American Library Assn.'s John Cotton Dana Award for library public relations. The high school is commended "for the restoration and exhibition of a half century of Southern California art which generated community involvement and awareness of the school library's diverse cultural role."
And to ensure the preservation of the collection, the school district initiated a new policy requiring that the paintings must all be hung in the four high school libraries.
And that's where they have remained. Until now.
For McManus, the collection represents "a history of Southern California art as it was manifested in Orange County from the mid-'30s to the mid-'60s."
For McGinnis, the first museum showing of the Ruth Stoever Fleming Collection of Southern California Art "gives the kind of exposure and credibility to the collection that it deserves and it gives people in the county an opportunity to see it that they otherwise might not have."
And for Fleming, the museum exhibit represents one more unexpected recognition for the art collection that bears her name.
"I just think it's marvelous," Fleming said. "I'm so happy that the collection is being recognized. It was John McGinnis that really made that happen, in putting it all back together and all the hard work on his part."
As for the museum's upcoming reception for the exhibition, Fleming said, "I wouldn't miss it."