ART / Cathy Curtis : Highs, Lows Keep Art World in the Middle

So what happened in the Orange County world of art in 1988? Well, lots of things, but the pluses and minuses seem to add up to a steady state rather than a Great Leap Forward.

The biggest news was the selection of Renzo Piano as the architect of the Newport Harbor Art Museum’s new building at MacArthur Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway.

Proven to be not only a font of novel ideas but also unusually attentive to major clients’ needs, Piano has created buildings as varied as the iconoclastic, show-off Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the austere Menil Collection in Houston.

He is still working out the details of the four-finger exercise of the new building, which will showcase art in a quartet of closely grouped halls he calls “fingers” that will be penetrated by a series of gardens. Schematic designs won’t be ready until late March.


Newport Harbor also had the major show of the year, a retrospective of the work of Chris Burden that showed the former UC Irvine art student to be a much more complex, baffling and ultimately brilliant fellow than we might have thought from his sensationalistic early work.

Newport Harbor also suffered a significant “brain-drain” in 1988, with the departure of associate curator Anne Ayres in May to become director of the gallery at Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles.

Ayres is not only an extraordinarily graceful writer about the knotty aspects of contemporary art, but she is also a serious intellect and a warm, down-to-earth person. Despite a protracted search, the museum has not yet found a replacement for her.

The biggest enigma of the 1988 Orange County art world may well be the Art Institute of Southern California’s beefed-up and newly sophisticated gallery program (with Nancy Mooslin as part-time gallery director). The Laguna Beach school’s new president, William Otton (who began his tenure there early this year) is the very same William Otton who presided over a frequently provincial and lackluster exhibition program at the Laguna Art Museum--the dubious fruits of which could still be seen this past year.


But who can complain at being able to add another “serious” gallery to Orange County’s woefully short list? The only other contender, officially announced this year but not due to open until mid-March, is Security Pacific’s Gallery at the Plaza, which will occupy a ground floor location at the bank’s new regional headquarters in Costa Mesa.

It was a transitional year at the Laguna museum, with a new chief curator, Michael McManus (hired in late 1987) and a new director, Charles Desmarais, former head of the California Museum of Photography in Riverside, who came on board just 3 months ago.

McManus’ dedication and broad-based knowledge has been invaluable to the museum, but the spotlight next year will be on Desmarais, who must now find the money and the courage to move forward with a braver and more analytically oriented series of historical and contemporary exhibits.

From a public standpoint, Bowers Museum had a quiescent year, with the bulk of its gallery space unavailable due to preparations for renovating the building. But behind the scenes there was a lot of fancy footwork.

Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer’s design for a $9.2-million expansion of the 52-year-old museum was scrapped last spring in favor of a new plan: a museum annex occupying the first two floors of an office tower to be built jointly with a private developer.

Then last fall it was determined that no market existed to encourage a developer to take that kind of risk--at least, not right now. The renovation work will still be undertaken, however, and the architectural firm will be unveiling a new master plan for the renovation next month.

At the Modern Museum of Art, the departure of chief curator Mike McGee left no one on staff with an art background. But the museum’s recent practice of importing shows packaged by recognized art museums or exhibition services has helped confer some measure of credibility to the institution, whose first year was marked by a curious naivete about standard professional practices in the world of art.

Still, despite an independent program of art education filmstrips designed for schools, the museum’s much ballyhooed focus on video and other “modern” education methods for viewers of the exhibitions has not come to pass.


The newcomer to the institutional fold is the Fullerton Museum Center, which opened in March as a somewhat undefined, general-interest exhibition facility. For the present, it is sticking to exhibitions curated by other institutions.

At UC Irvine, the art exhibition program was a scattershot affair, without any clear direction or overall point of view. Part of the problem may be attributable to minuscule gallery space that must frequently be shared with studio art students’ shows.

The county’s two major “alternative” spaces, the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Ana and BC Space in Laguna Beach, are still chugging along. OCCCA is about to close a deal on a new, more centrally located gallery. BC Space has weathered a change in ownership (Mark Chamberlain is now in sole command, after the departure of his former partner Jerry Burchfield) but continues to come up with the kind of exhibits no one else seems to have the guts--or craziness--to offer.

Countywide, the art phenomenon of the year was “Photography: Inside Out,” a series of exhibitions celebrating both the Orange County centennial and the 150th anniversary of photography.

The brainchild of Dorrit Fitzgerald, curator at the Irvine Fine Arts Center, the exhibits showered viewers with all manner of contemporary photographs at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, the Irvine Fine Arts Center, Rancho Santiago College, the Fullerton Museum Center and Chapman College. The level of work in the series bits was generally high. The main thing missing was intelligent but jargon-free reading matter to help the bewildered viewer make sense of it all.