Closed to the public for 13 months now, still preparing for a long-anticipated, $12-million renovation and expansion, the 54-year-old Bowers Museum has become the Greta Garbo of the Orange County museum world.
With a collection of 100,000 art and anthropological objects from the Americas, Africa and Oceania--most of them rarely seen by the public--the museum has always lacked a clear identity. But now that the galleries are dark, the museum seems even more obscure.
What is the staff doing over there these days? Former director Paul Piazza resigned seven months ago. Is anyone being tapped to replace him? Are renovation plans proceeding on schedule?
These and other questions about the Bowers’ health and future were posed recently to Arthur V. Strock, president of the Bowers board. Supremely articulate and unflappably positive in thinking, Strock is an architect whose firm is based in Newport Beach.
Q. We understand that there has been no search for a new museum director since Piazza’s resignation in May.
A. No, there is no search.
Q. Doesn’t it bother you that it may look to the outside world that the Bowers lacks direction?
A. No, it does not bother me. We have developed over the past few years a very specific agenda of what we wish the Bowers to become, and we are pursuing that agenda. In terms of its collection and the things it shows, the Bowers will deal with the cultural arts of the Pacific Rim.
Q. Meanwhile, the board of governors has the museum under such control that you can take your sweet time in making a decision regarding a new director?
A. That’s to (associate director) Josie De Falla’s credit. She is doing an excellent job serving as the acting director for the museum. If she had not been able to take over the reins, we would have a sense of urgency that we do not feel.
Q. But she has no previous experience as the director of a cultural institution. (De Falla has been a museum research assistant at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University and the Museum of Systematic Biology at Stanford University. After being Piazza’s administrative assistant at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, she followed him--in the same capacity--to the Bowers.)
A. A museum director(‘s job) has at least three basic components. One is managerial. Museums are businesses, among other things. They hire and fire people, they maintain physical plants, they correspond with the public and the press and and they try to be fiscally responsible.
There is (also) a scholarly component to being a museum director. What is the museum about? Can you communicate that to the public, to the arts community? . . .
The third component is entrepreneurial. Particularly in these days, museums need to be entrepreneurial to survive. A museum director needs to be able to speak to the chamber of commerce, to city departments, and to be able to participate--not necessarily manage, but participate--in the activities of fund raising.
I’m not sure that a person who fills all those roles perfectly exists on the face of the earth, and if that person does, they’re probably talking to the National Gallery or to the Metropolitan in New York. They’re not talking to us.
So we have decided to look beyond the notion of a museum director as a specific person, but to look at the staff of a museum in composite as being able to fill these roles.
We are extremely fortunate to have a strong curatorial staff in Armand Labbe and Paul Apodaca. One of the ironies of the Bowers Museum is that we are much better known in South America and Europe for our scholarly components and the quality of our staff than we are in Southern California.
We have in Josie an extremely competent manager who has the enthusiastic support of her employees. She has done a wonderful job in firming up relationships with her counterparts on the city staff, she has been extremely responsible in managing the nuts and bolts of the physical plant and the economics of running the museum. She’s been a very pleasant surprise to everybody in that regard.
(She has) the ability to communicate to the (16-member, full-time) staff what the museum is doing, why it’s doing it and why it’s to the benefit of the museum and the staff. That has been done very directly and with great candor. It hasn’t been done with subterfuge or superfluous stroking. . . .
Q. Yet , not searching nationally for a director may look as though the board wants to steer the ship by itself. Maybe a “star” museum director would get in the way.
A. Oh no no no no no no. You’re exactly wrong. When I took the position I now have, I turned to Josie and said, “I want you to tell me what to do.” Nobody on the board wishes to make a career in society or anywhere else out of being on the board and running the Bowers Museum. I can tell you that for a fact. . . . The board is looking for a very, very strong leadership. . . . I think we all know that (museums) need to be run by professionals and not by dilettantes.
Q. Nonetheless, you are not searching for a director with a major track record.
A. There are lots of ways to lead effectively. . . . In some ways it’s more important that a director at the Bowers be able to communicate with a relatively unsophisticated and broad spectrum of the community with a gentle voice than to come on with tremendous scholarly and esoteric authority, or, if you will, cachet or personal charisma. . . .
When we decide it’s appropriate and responsible to hire a permanent director, we will do so. We’re not just going to stay in limbo out into the future. It’s unfair to the staff, and it’s just not reasonable. It may be Josie; it might be somebody else who best suits the meeds of the museum. . . . It may involve a (national) search. We’re in no hurry, and we see no reason to be in a hurry.
Q. So you’ll decide once the renovation is completed?
A. Or maybe before then. We may decide to do it two months from now.
Q You’re leaving your options open.
A. Sure. Because we feel no pressure to change something that’s working very well.
Q. Why didn’t Piazza stay on board through the planning process? Was there something he wanted and the board didn’t?
A. No, I think we ended up with a square peg in a round hole, and that’s not the fault of the peg, that’s not the fault of the hole. There were some other circumstances. Paul’s wife, Valery, had some serious medical problems. . . . The mission of the museum changed through the course of time (from) . . . what Paul was told it was going to be when he was hired.
Q. But you and he have both described the museum’s purpose in the same way, as a primary focus on the Pacific Rim countries.
A. Yes. The goal stayed the same, (but) the way to get from A to Z changed. The mechanisms and the ways we were going to get there changed. . . .
Q. In a nutshell, things were taking longer than Piazza expected they would.
A. And we were all on a learning curve. False steps were made. . . . (In 1988, the board, led by several new members, scrapped a 1987 expansion design by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates. Renovation was further delayed by months of discussion, plans--eventually postponed--for a possible partnership with a private developer, and the search for a new architect). It was frustrating. To everybody.
Q. What was the reason for closing the galleries so long before construction was supposed to begin?
A. You have to remember that the museum has been in a state of flux. . . . (The museum) has suffered from a benign and well-meaning state of neglect. It has been the community attic in much the way the Los Angeles County Museum was 30 or 40 years before it was divided up into its various parts. You could see dinosaurs in one room and a Rembrandt in the next. If somebody cleaned out their attic and found an old painting they didn’t want, they donated it to the museum; it might be worth something, it might not.
When we closed the galleries, one of the reasons was to have the time to put all of the collection in one spot and to document it on more than 3-by-5 index cards. We’re doing a full (computer) cross-referencing on close to 100,000 objects in the museum (collection), and that (catalogue) will be available on modem or videodisc to any museum in the world. There’s a housekeeping value to that, in terms of “What have we got? Are we properly insured? Are we properly documented?”
And there’s also a scholarly component. We’re finding that a number of things given to us as the detritus of civilization in Orange County have great value--in some cases economic value, but more importantly, scholarly value or anthropological value.
Q. What sorts of things are these?
A. For example, the diaries of Orange County’s first pharmacist--something that’s very esoteric, that is not ever going to be hung in the main gallery or featured in a show. But . . . it’s wonderful to have that resource available. . . . Other examples of what may have seemed trivia at the time but what has become valuable are period clothing, some made by local seamstresses or tailors, business diaries and records. . . .
Q. So what is the board’s grand plan for the identity and future of the Bowers?
A. The mission statement has two distinct parts. In terms of its collection and the things it shows, the Bowers will deal with the cultural arts of the Pacific Rim. That covers a lot of territory, no pun intended. It could mean, for example, that we have a display of plein air painting. It could mean 1,500 years of Japanese ceramics, right up to what was made yesterday in the most avant-garde studio in Tokyo.
If we were to do a show of painting done in Orange County in the first 30 years of this century, it might be nice to have a photo exhibit of what Orange County looked like at the time. And (find out) who were the people who bought these paintings and how did they make their living. Did the local orange farmer go down to pick a painter and say, “Paint a picture of my orange grove”? Whatever we do will have
a cultural relationship component . . . a sociological relationship to the people who live in here.
And that’s the second part of our mission statement. With no implicit reference or comment on any other museum in Orange County, the Bowers is going to specifically be a very egalitarian institution. . . . We are a melting pot, just as New York was 100 years ago. That affords an incredible opportunity for the museum. . . .
(The idea is to) provide context rather than just take a thing or group of things and put them on the wall and say, “Look at this beautiful gold bracelet” or provide an obtuse scholarly discussion of it, which is meaningless to most people.
Q. But you don’t have anyone on staff who specializes in Japanese pottery or California paintings. Who would curate such shows?
A. We’d have to get outside help. But the help exists and it wants to be used--free-lance curators, the faculty at UC Irvine. My perception of the scholarly component of the museum community is that they’d like to be of assistance to one another. They don’t feel competitive in the way that some superstar curators at Eastern museums do.
The best friends the Bowers has are all the other cultural institutions of Orange County, and vice versa. We need to establish a collective presence. If you can have a boulevard of car (dealers), you can have a community of museums. . . . And of course we’ve got to support each other because all of us are scrambling for dollars. If we do it by going at our opponents’ throats, we’ll all suffer for it.
Q. Speaking of the scramble for dollars, one reason the Bowers was denied a California Arts Council grant for educational programs last year is that, to quote the report, “There was no indication of a plan to obtain funds from outside Orange County.” What’s happening on the fund-raising front?
A. First of all, we have to have something to sell. . . . When we get to the point when we have a better sense of scheduling, when (the city formally relinquishes the $12 million it has allocated for the museum expansion), we can then go to people with great credibility and say: The city has given us these funds, they have faith in us. We have this physical plant, we have a business plan, we’re involved in the Bowers Museum District (a 90-acre development--bounded by Broadway, 17th Street and the Santa Ana Freeway--that will include a mix of commercial and cultural uses). We’re credible in terms of our scholarship and credible in terms of our reach to the community. . . .
Q. The CAC panel also wondered why salaries were going up at the Bowers while the building was closed to the public.
A. People at the museum were woefully underpaid. We wanted to show the people whose salaries were raised . . . that we appreciate them and that they should be rewarded for a helluva lot of hard work.
Q. Which they’re still doing , even though the museum is closed to the public.
A. The galleries are closed to the public. The museum is not closed. The Bowers Museum is very much in business. . . . The worst thing we could do is open this wonderful new museum and just grab the first dozen Anasazi pots we could find and throw them on a shelf and say, “Ta-da! We’re open.” Exhibits take a long time to plan, and we’re actively doing that now. It takes two years to plan a major exhibition.
We’re curating the collection, which is an awesome task. About 80,000 objects have to be looked at, analyzed, a provenance defined, who gave it, what’s it worth. That’s a lot of work, a lot of computer time. And if there’s any remedial or preservation work to be done, now is the time to do it. . . . I understand (California Arts Council members) were told we were divesting ourselves of some of our collection; that we were selling it. That is not true. Period. Nor will it be.
At the same time, our mobile museum is running full bore, our classes both on-site and off-site are running full bore, our lecture series still exist, special events still exist. There are a lot of things for people to do.
Q. What kinds of exhibits are envisioned for the renovated Bowers galleries?
A. For years, the Bowers has maintained a special gallery that talks about the history of early Orange County, from the missionaries in Mexico City, Junipero Serra, the Hidalgo culture, the Irvine Co. and on up. That exhibit got very decrepit and threadbare, but nevertheless almost every fourth-grader who went to school in Orange County was trotted through it, and hopefully some of that wore off.
We’re going to take (the exhibits) out of the 1955 diorama stage, make (them) dynamic and have some (viewer) interactivity. So if, for example, we have a threshing machine in there or an orange peeler from the old Sunkist plant, maybe we can figure out a way to energize it so a child can put an orange in it and watch it be peeled. That may not be a deep lesson, but it gets the child interested.
Q. Where will the money for permanent interactive exhibits come from?
A. We have some of it, in that the raw materials for those exhibits exist. . . . (The exhibitions) are going to be a major portion of our fund-raising effort, when we can walk (a potential donor) through the construction process and show them a layout for the space. We can say, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be great to have this be the history of the California missions sponsored by IBM,’ for example. . . .
Looking for corporate sponsorship is a lot easier, I understand, when you have something specific to fund. And the benefits, the quid pro quos, can be carefully defined as well. If you can say, “It’s going in this room, it’s going to look like this, and 40,000 fourth-graders a year are going to walk through this exhibit,” that’s a lot more (persuasive) than saying, “We have this dream. We want to build this museum. Give us some money and we’ll let you know when it’s done.”
Q. Why did the Bowers scrap the design created by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, for which the city paid $1 million in 1987?
A. . . . (Because) the museum business--I use that word advisedly--changed. We had substantial tax reform in this country that had the unexpected side effect of making it a lot more difficult to give things of value and money to cultural institutions.
At the same time, the case for entrepreneurial use of museum assets was proven by a number of museums, (such as) the Museum of Modern Art in New York. . . . So the board reached a decision that the lovely museum that Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer designed for us was no longer programmatically appropriate to the mission of the museum, through no fault of the architects. They did exactly what they were asked to do, and they did it very well.
Q. What specifically was amiss?
A. Nothing was amiss; it was a realization on the part of the museum that the direction it gave to (the architects) wasn’t in its best interests. That the museum had a very valuable potential asset in the land it owned or controlled, and that to (allow the museum to take up the entire parcel of land) wasn’t the best use of that resource. . . .
A public-private partnership between the museum and some commercial interest that might purchase or lease the museum’s “surplus” land (was more) fiscally responsible. It’s also an inflationary hedge, a convenient way of investing money it doesn’t have to its own benefit.
So another architect was hired, George Bissell (of Bissell Architects in Newport Beach) and told, basically, “We have this much land, but you only get to build on so much of it. We need to reserve, both to the north and the south, pieces of land that can be used for commercial expansion (to provide an annuity to the museum) or joint use of the land in concert with commercial development.”
For example, museums always like storage space. But storage space doesn’t have to be on the ground floor on a major arterial street. It can be on the bottom of a parking structure--the piece of a development that would be of least value to a real estate developer. So there’s a nice symbiotic relationship there. It’s win-win. We’re looking ahead to that day.
The other thing we decided was that, again through no fault of (Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer), we had (designed) a building that had three risks. One, it would overwhelm the 1936 building, which we decided we wanted to preserve and restore to its original elegance. The second risk was, we were building a building that would be extremely expensive to maintain. . . .
The third risk was that, in terms of our carefully defined mission to the community, we’d be building something that was so lovely and so elegant and so fragile that it would impose itself on people. . . . It was a monument. . . . We decided that we already have (a monument)--the 1936 building--and that the new structure should be . . . a relatively efficient and benign and supportive addition to this lovely little jewel.
Another benefit accrues from (the new design): It becomes a much less expensive building. It will cost probably $4 or 5 million less (than the $12 million budgeted for the earlier design). I am absolutely convinced that it will satisfy all the programmatic needs of the museum in terms of exhibition, scholarship, all the things we need to do--because the staff tells me so, and they are the expansion’s most diligent critics because they are protecting their turf.
Money we save can be used in other ways--by the city for the general good of the community, to acquire more land, which we can then use to leverage more more funds for the museum. Again, it’s being entrepreneurial. . . . If we end up with an extra couple million dollars, we can spend on it on curatorial support, on mounting wonderful exhibits. We can add to the collection. All those things have enduring value.
Q. Do you know for sure that the museum will be able to use the surplus city money?
A. I think (in June, when the new design is submitted to the City Council) we’ll be willing to look the city in the eye and say, “We brought this thing in way under the original budget. We realize things are tight. Let’s spend the balance for the good of the museum and the community.”
If that means building, for example, an auditorium or a meeting room that is usable by the museum and by the community and also serves as--if you want to be blunt about it--an inducement to bring other start-up museums and cultural facilities to Santa Ana, great. There’s no reason, for example, if someone were to build a museum of modern art next to the Bowers, why we couldn’t share a paint shop, an auditorium, a library. . . . The Bowers wants to be supportive of the notion of a museum district and an intensification of cultural life in Santa Ana. If it involves taking some of (the surplus) and spending that for the common good, terrific.
Q. But first, don’t you have to combat the perception that the Bowers is a sleepy place , and nothing much happens there?
A. Yes, that’s a fait accompli that we have to deal with. We’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to prove that’s not the case is not to have a charismatic spokesperson out there but to see the crane go up. That’s the proof of the pudding. . . . When we can show that we are making--again a bad pun--concrete progress toward realizing that dream . . . we’ll have something to show and something to sell and proof of our credibility. . . .
We are following (a) carefully laid out, rather precise thread of activity, and I think we’re being quite successful at it.