A Light Show in Riverside : Museum: University relocates its cache of photographs, negatives and cameras to a cleverly converted dime store on the downtown pedestrian mall.

TIMES ART WRITER

So long to campus hideaways. Farewell to sleepy programs. The California Museum of Photography, whose vast collections rival the nation's best, is going public and shooting for stardom.

The museum's $15-million cache of possessions--including 18,000 photographs, 350,000 stereoscopic prints and negatives, and 6,000 pieces of photographic equipment--finally has a properly distinguished home. Operated by UC Riverside and formerly quartered in a nice old house on campus, CMP will open on Saturday in an ingeniously refurbished Kress dime store, at 3824 Main St., on downtown Riverside's pedestrian mall.

Offering a properly serious program--with a full range of exhibitions on the science, history and art of photography--as well as great things for the kids to do, the museum is certain to be a big attraction. And not a minute too soon.

The long-awaited move brings a major photography museum into public view after four years of talk, a $2.5-million capital campaign and untold community effort. While photography aficionados have long known of CMP's strength and potential, its sphere of influence has been limited.

That is likely to change now that the museum has a more accessible location and it has given the public several reasons to visit. For one thing, the building itself is a delight. Designed by architect Stanley Saitowitz as a metaphor for photography, the 23,000-square-foot storefront deftly fulfills its museum function while giving imaginative visitors the impression that they are inside a massive camera. The impression comes true when they venture onto a balcony off the top floor and walk right into a giant camera obscura. This big black box projects upside-down images of buildings and people across the street onto a white interior wall of the camera.

The walk-in camera is only one exhibit in a hands-on gallery designed to illustrate the principles of photography. There's a "Light Island," for example, containing prisms and lenses that bend light and mix colors. Red, blue and green light bulbs in an exhibit called "Colored Shadows" encourage visitors to mix colors with shadows of their bodies. A "Praxinoscope," with mirrored images of pole vaulters on a spinning drum, turns still images into moving pictures.

The new museum isn't all bells and whistles, however. At a sneak preview of the building, staged for the press, museum officials said that the museum will organize a program of changing exhibitions, host scholarly exchanges and present a varied slate of educational programs for adults and children.

That sounds familiar, but CMP plans to distinguish itself from other photography museums by following the directions of its extraordinary collections. They include the Keystone-Mast Collection of more than 250,000 stereoscopic negatives and 100,000 prints--the entire surviving archive of the Keystone View Co., a leading distributor of stereo views. The university's print collection contains about 18,000 photographs by such masters as Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Albert Renger-Patsch, Barbara Morgan and William Henry Jackson.

The Bingham Collection, which launched the museum in 1973, consists of 6,000 cameras and related objects. In addition, the CMP library has a growing collection of rare books and other publications on photography. Certainly the largest in the West, the Riverside photography collection compares with those at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Apart from their vast size, CMP's collections are remarkable in that they reflect the full scope of the field--the science, history and art of photography. The museum program will capitalize on this strength, integrating all three aspects, according to Edward W. Earle, acting associate director. For its opening, the museum will feature two permanent displays--the interactive gallery and a two-part show demonstrating the history of photographic technology and imagery--plus four temporary exhibitions.

The temporary shows are: "By Choice: Photographs From the Ruttenberg Collection," featuring 60 works from Chicago attorney David C. Ruttenberg's 4,000-piece collection; "Time/Motion: Mandel/Gilbreth," containing '50s photographs by efficiency experts Frank and Lillian Gilbreth and contemporary artist Mike Mandel's witty responses to their pioneering studies of workers' motions; "New Acquisitions: Photographs by American Women Artists," showcasing works purchased with a $10,000 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts; and "Visual Index: A Guide to Collections," introducing the museum's holdings of photographic negatives, prints and equipment.

These exhibitions fill about 8,000 square feet of space on four floors, including a mezzanine and a basement, which houses a study center and collection storage. Plans call for the addition of a small cafe on the mezzanine and a museum store in the lobby.

As a university-run, off-campus facility, the museum is likely to be a magnet for Riverside's downtown redevelopment area. UC Riverside in 1986 bought the old Kress dime store from the City of Riverside for $1, with the understanding that the 1930s building would be refurbished and used as a museum. Saitowitz has preserved much of the facade while gutting the interior and turning it into a high-tech, camera-like environment alluding to sprockets, rolls of film and an aperture.

Envisioning an institution that will serve townspeople as well as academics and artists, museum officials hope that the downtown location--near Riverside's historic Mission Inn--will prove enticing to visitors who might not venture onto campus. "The California Museum of Photography represents the best of a partnership between the city, the county and the university. We want it be a place of study for scholars and a place of nurturance for the community. We hope the museum will significantly impact the lives of all who come through it," UCR Chancellor Rosemary Schraer said at the press conference.

That order will be considerably easier to fill when CMP has a director. The institution has been without a chief since October, 1988, when former director Charles Desmarais resigned to head the Laguna Beach Museum. The ambitious project was well on its way then, but the lack of a permanent spokesman has surely made fund-raising and program development more difficult. Schraer said she expected a successor to be named soon.

Concha Rivera has served as acting director in the interim, working with eight staff members. Earle is in charge of exhibitions and Deborah Klochko is director of education.

MUSEUM SCHEDULE

The museum will be open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free on opening day. The charge thereafter is $2 for adults, $1 for youths aged 13-18, students and seniors. A special opening-day program on Saturday begins with a 10:30 a.m. ribbon cutting. Classical guitarist David Cahueque will play from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Collegium Musicum will present baroque and renaissance music from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Video programs on photography are slated for 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Gallery tours are scheduled at noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Information: (714) 784-FOTO.

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