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Newport Art Museum Picks New Director

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Michael Botwinick, 47, a former director of the Brooklyn Museum in New York and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, has been named director of the Newport Harbor Art Museum, the museum announced Thursday.

The appointment, made 14 months after the departure of former director Kevin Consey, was approved by the museum’s board Thursday night.

The museum, one of Orange County’s major cultural institutions, has an international reputation for its exhibits of modern and contemporary art. The directorship is particularly crucial because the museum’s $50-million campaign to construct and endow a new building has been stalled since Consey left the post in November, 1989. Without staff leadership, the project has attracted only $10 million in cash and pledges.

During the course of their search, museum officials approached at least five other potential candidates, all of whom turned the offer down. Most said they were reluctant to get involved in the building program, which was further complicated last summer when museum trustees--reportedly at the urging of Donald L. Bren, a board member and chairman of the Irvine Co.--fired architect Renzo Piano, who was Consey’s choice. Bren, who owns the land targeted for the expansion, was said to be unhappy with Piano’s design.

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A native New Yorker who now lives in Chicago, Botwinick directed the Brooklyn Museum--which houses fine and applied arts from many cultures and periods--from 1974 to 1982. He was responsible for an 80,000-square-foot museum building expansion, and he supervised the reinstallation of a portion of the collections.

Botwinick’s next directorship was at the Corcoran Gallery, which specializes in 19th-Century American and contemporary art. There, he presided over a $10-million endowment campaign--the museum’s first--and helped develop plans for a 100-square-foot mixed-use office building to house museum classrooms and offices. During his tenure, the Corcoran’s School of Art, a four-year, degree-granting institution, was accredited. He resigned in 1986 and subsequently has worked in the commercial art field.

Botwinick, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University in New Jersey, earned his master’s degree in medieval art from Columbia University in New York. He also has held positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A museum spokeswoman said he would start his new job immediately, commuting to his home in Chicago until relocating here.

Consey, who received $85,000 annually, left Newport Harbor to become director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Botwinick was reportedly paid $98,000 a year by the Corcoran.

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When he resigned that post without announcing plans for his next job, there was talk in the art world that he had been forced out by the staff’s unhappiness with his aggressive, hands-on management style. At the time, staff members refused to comment on Botwinick’s departure. A key employee of Botwinick’s at the Corcoran, reached Thursday, also refused to be quoted on or off the record about working with him.

(The Corcoran has had eight directors during the past 20 years, an unusually heavy turnover. The director who succeeded Botwinick was Christina Orr-Cahall, who set off a firestorm by canceling an exhibit of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and subsequently resigned.)

In 1987, Botwinick joined the staff of Knoedler-Modarco, S.A., the parent company of the distinguished gallery M. Knoedler & Co. and the more middlebrow Hammer Galleries, both in New York. Knoedler-Modarco was largely owned by the late Armand Hammer, who was also a Corcoran trustee. As senior vice president, Botwinick was responsible for Knoedler’s historical painting division.

Most recently he has been handling business investments in the art field for the Pritzker family of financiers in Chicago as an employee of Fine Art Group, L.P., a Buffalo Grove, Ill., holding company for the Chicago-based Merrill Chase Galleries. They deal in 19th- and early 20th-Century art, with five branches in Chicago and others in Atlanta, Washington, Honolulu and Kauai.

Newport Harbor Board President Thomas H. Nielsen said in a prepared statement that Botwinick “not only understands art but can be a strong leader in the business side of running a museum.”

Some observers said Thursday that they were surprised to see Botwinick return to the museum world after leaving it 3 1/2 years ago for the commercial art field, especially considering some of Botwinick’s own subsequent comments.

Botwinick told the New York Times last March that “because museums survive by living off the flesh of their key staff members, they cannibalize themselves. An extraordinary number of museums are struggling economically, and their staffs are told to hang on. They give and they give and they give and they give and they give, and some people have to run out of gas.”

Writing in the Washington Post in 1987, when Botwinick left the Corcoran for Knoedler, critic Paul Richard noted that “the boundary between museums and commercial art dealing is a sort of one-way membrane. Commercial galleries frequently have hired museum specialists, but good museums almost never hire dealers.”

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Richard quoted Botwinick as saying, “One reason it is a one-way membrane is that no one has ever wanted to come back.”

But Hugh Davies, director of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, said Thursday, when informed of Botwinick’s appointment, that “it’s very much the mode in the past few years for people to go back and forth (from museums to the commercial art world). . . . (Museum directors’ tenure) is comparable to (that of) football coaches. . . . His hiatus between directing museums must have given him a chance to think and replenish his resources in every way before getting back into the fray.

“It’s very much to (Newport Harbor’s) credit that they’ve managed to attract a director who has a great deal of experience in the museum field,” Davis said.

Even Botwinick’s grim quotes on the museum profession didn’t faze Davies. “I doubt if you’d find a museum director in the country who would argue with that (“give and give and give”) quote,” he said. “A lot is asked of museum directors, and in return they don’t receive substantial salary and benefits. . . . I’ve always been very sympathetic to the way my colleagues have come and gone from institutions. . . . Some of the best people have left (museum) jobs.”

Botwinick said in a prepared statement that he came back to museum work because he “missed the satisfaction that came from nurturing an institution, from being firmly grounded in some sense of public service, and from providing focus to a staff of colleagues that results in accomplishments beyond available resources.”

Botwinick and his wife, Harriet Maltzer, have two children. He is expected to be in Orange County this morning to meet with reporters.


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