SPREAD OUT : The New Bowers Museum of Cultural Art Now Has Lots More Room to Show Off Its Treasures

Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

For nearly six decades, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana was a sleepy city repository of some 85,000 ethnographic African, pre-Columbian, American Indian and Oceanic objects, most of which visitors never got to see.

Now the renamed Bowers Museum of Cultural Art has kicked off its slippers and entered its go-go years. Opening to the public on Sunday after being closed for nearly four years for a $12-million expansion and renovation, the grand dame is showing off with a vengeance.

In addition to significant behind-the-scenes improvements, novelties accessible to the public include:

* State-of-the-art new galleries that double the exhibition space.

* Redesigned permanent displays of California history and pre-Columbian art (with interactive video displays).

* Four--count 'em, four--major exhibits of artifacts from China, Colombia, Oceania and West and Central Africa.

* A big new museum store.

* A Southwestern-style museum restaurant, Indigo, leased by local restaurateur David Wilhelm (owner of Bistro 201, Kachina, the recently opened Diva and several other eateries in Orange County and Los Angeles), which opens in December.

Old-timers and purists can relax in the knowledge that Newport Beach architect George Bissell's design--which added 51,672 square feet to the museum, tripling its size--modestly nudges the building into the 21st Century without disturbing its gracious old ways. A penny-pinching achievement accounting for only $6 million of the entire budget, the expansion wisely concentrates on utility.

The modish-sounding "galleria" on the first floor turns out to be little more than a skinny high-ceilinged corridor linking the galleries with the shop and restaurant. Although Bissell had planned to relieve the white expanse with light-reflecting glass blocks on the wall shared with the restaurant, his plans were foiled when Robert Mechielsen and Assoc.--the Malibu-based firm chosen by Wilhelm to design the restaurant--decided to move its entrance to the main lobby.

On the bright side, the exposed wood beams in the peaked ceiling and the tall Western-exposure window give this white-walled public space a sober clarity reminiscent of mission church architecture. (Maybe it's symbolic that this "nave" faces west, home of the Pacific Rim cultures to which the museum is dedicated.)

The new galleries for traveling shows are unremarkable in themselves, serving simply as self-effacing 20-foot-tall containers for a vibrant world of art and artifacts. The news here is a matter of flexibility (by modular ceilings that can change the size and configuration of the galleries depending on the contents of a given exhibit) and invisible safety devices (up-to-the-minute climate-control and security systems).

And that's about it for radical changes in the public spaces. Not only were the additions tucked modestly into the rear of the site, but the museum's signature features remain unchanged or have been restored to their original luster. The landmark Spanish-style courtyard remains intact, as does the bell-tower entrance--as familiar in these parts as the Taco Bell logo--and the refurbished second-floor balcony.

In rooms long hidden from public view, the vintage coffered ceilings and ceiling mural on the second floor now properly look down on galleries of California history. The only telltale contemporary touches are the lighting schemes and the fresh white paint on the walls.

Alas, even the museum's continuing inability to find contemporary Western art of quality to exhibit will be familiar. Apache artist Allan Houser's American-Indian-themed sculptures--permanently installed in the museum, more's the pity--are the sort of people-pleasing kitsch no major contemporary art museum would want in its public spaces.

On the other hand, people who may have shied from a potentially boring museum experience in the past will find a range of compellingly displayed and intelligently labeled objects to pique their curiosity--most of which come from the Bowers' own collection.

According to Armand Labbe, director of collections and research at the museum, the permanent collection exhibits were chosen with an eye toward highlighting the rarity and aesthetic excellence of the individual pieces, as well as toward illustrating significant aspects of each culture.

The stately, room-circling procession of large-scale West and Central African sculptures in "Power and Creation: Africa Beyond the Nile" and the diverse objects in "Realm of the Ancestors: Arts of Oceania"--glimpsed on a rapid pre-opening walk-through last week--were not fully installed. But even protectively bagged in plastic (for a fire sprinkler test), these works created a force field of their own that commands attention.

Actually, that notion isn't so far-fetched. These figures were made to serve as the repository for the life force or "vital soul" of a disembodied spirit. Both the African cultures represented in the exhibit and the Australoids and Austronesians who settled in New Guinea, Australia and Melanesia 35,000 and 40,000 years ago viewed art as a way of placating and manipulating the forces of nature.

Labbe explained, incidentally, that the Bowers' rather puzzling new designation as a museum of "cultural art" means that exhibitions will try to look at objects "from an indigenous perspective . . . to get right under the skin of these cultures and see artwork as they would see it."

Instead of "assuming superstition" on the part of other cultures--or simply observing their habits from a cool Western remove--Labbe said, the exhibitions will attempt to "give indigenous culture the benefit of the doubt."

The two exhibits borrowed from foreign museums are "Tribute to the Gods: Treasures of the Museo del Oro"--a group of 300 pre-Columbian artifacts made of gold, stone or ceramic, from the gold museum in Bogota, Colombia--and "Chinese Art: Masterpieces of the Chang Foundation, Taipei."

The show of pre-Columbian objects, off-limits to visitors last week for security reasons, is likely to be the sexy one of the group for casual viewers. The indigenous goldsmith's art that appealed to the greed of European invaders seems calculated to draw "oohs" and "ahs" from latter-day admirers of finely crafted precious metal.

The Chinese art exhibit--ceramics from the Han to Qing dynasties (a span of more than 20 centuries) and a group of early 20th-Century paintings--also will be reviewed at a later date. But one aspect of the show, a project of the Bowers' Chinese Cultural Arts Council, needs clarification.

Unlike the world's preeminent state museums, the three-year-old Chang Foundation and its museum--run by the former director of the Chinese department at Christie's, the international auction house--represent the collecting efforts of industrialist T.K. Chang and his family. Similar "boutique" museums in the West have had a mixed critical reception, depending on the quality of the collection and the degree of scholarship displayed by the staff.

The foundation's lavishly illustrated catalogue for this exhibit--which contains only a 3 1/2-page essay on the ceramic objects and a single page of biographies of the three major painters--has the salesmanship-heavy feel of a marketing venture.

The inclusion of a color reproduction of the remodeled Bowers Museum in this book only points up the keen desire for the foundation to find acceptance in the United States. Bringing this show to Santa Ana is not at all the same thing as persuading a world-renowned museum to lend its treasured objects. Although director Peter Keller and Labbe, a noted scholar of pre-Columbian art, do have personal ties to certain foreign museums, the Bowers as an institution probably will have to prove its revitalized worth in the museum world before it can snag a real international coup.

*

A Depression baby, the Bowers Museum traces its history to a bequest of land and construction funds from the estate of Charles W. and Ada Bowers, Missourians who moved to balmy Santa Ana in 1886. After traveling through the United States and Canada collecting postcards of local landmarks, the couple became history buffs with a particular fondness for the Spanish and Mexican eras of Orange County history.

The Bowerses willed their home and property to the city for a local museum. In 1932 the house was razed, and a museum was built on the land. But the couple had left no endowment, and the city fathers hemmed and hawed for the next four years before agreeing to appropriate an operating budget for a new institution.

It was an all-too-inauspicious opening for a museum that has had its share of money and city-related problems. By the early '80s, financial problems threatened the future of the city-operated museum, and none of the expansion plans eagerly touted over the years got off the ground. During the past decade, three directors have come and gone.

Reilly Rhodes departed in 1982, after nine years as director, when his plan for a two-phase, $17-million museum expansion run by an independent board of trustees fell victim to power struggles with the city and a dearth of contributions. He was followed by William Lee, who resigned in 1986 for personal reasons after 3 1/2 years of commuting from his San Fernando Valley home.

In 1985, the city redevelopment agency hired a consultant to draft a feasibility study for the expansion. The report zeroed in on some major problems, particularly the museum's ownership, which hampered the institution's fund-raising potential (corporate donors weren't solicited until 1984).

Even though fewer than 1% of the Bowers' members lived in Santa Ana, it was not perceived as a countywide museum. In addition, the report said, the museum suffered from a confused public image and a "distinct lack of excitement."

Although the museum attempted to gain accreditation from the American Assn. of Museums in 1977 and 1981, it was turned down both times because it lacked a properly functioning governing structure, adequate staffing and funding and sufficient curatorial activity. The museum remains unaccredited, although a new bid for recognition--based on the Bowers' new strengths--will be forthcoming once the museum has reopened.

Things started to look up in 1987, when the city formed a broadly based private nonprofit group--the Charles W. Bowers Museum Corp.--to run the museum, replacing the old Bowers Museum Foundation. The contract between the corporation and the city stipulated that city funding--which then accounted for nearly the entire $1.3 million budget--would remain at the same level for 10 years. Beginning in 1997, the level of city support will drop 10% each year--leaving the museum entirely on its own by 2007.

The Santa Ana Redevelopment Agency approved $9.2 million for the expansion in 1986. The next year, Paul Piazza, former head of Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, became the Bowers' new director. He proudly unveiled a $12-million design by the renowned architecture firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, responsible for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's expansion and other major cultural projects.

But the momentum halted again the year after, when the trustees had a change of heart. They decided the HHP design would occupy too much of the museum's valuable land. It would be much smarter, they figured, to keep an acre of the parcel available for joint use with a commercial development--a way to augment the museum's income. The board also worried that the design was too overwhelming, that it would destroy the character of the old building and be too expansive to maintain.

The changes in the development plan and the long delays they entailed became irksome to Piazza, who was essentially running a museum on hold. Although the Bowers had closed to the public in January 1989, the Santa Ana Redevelopment Agency still hadn't approved the latest expansion scheme when Piazza left the museum the following May.

For nearly two years, the Bowers had no permanent director, and the board seemed in no hurry to find one. While Josie de Falla, Piazza's former assistant, served as acting director, the expansion process crept through official channels. In July 1989, the city finally approved the hiring of Bissell Architects, which released working drawings in October. One year later, ground was broken for the project.

Keller arrived a few months later, in January 1991. The director, 44, a former associate director for public programs at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, is a smooth-talking geologist with a penchant for jetting off to far corners of the globe to research gem deposits.

He has installed his companion, Patricia House, as director of development. House, a psychotherapist, was formerly a trustee of the Natural History Museum, where she chaired a membership program. Keller has said he expects to hire curators of Asian, African and Oceanic art, and of Orange County history.

With a '92-'93 operating budget of $2.5 million--only about 31% of which comes from the city--the corporation's Board of Governors has had to dream up new ways to appeal to Orange County donors. Keller cites an upbeat 1991 survey by the Harrison Price Co. that reported that 71% of the museum's budget can be met by revenue generated by admissions--instituted for the first time this fall--and user fees from groups using the space.

During the past year, the capital campaign has been hunting for donors interested in having galleries and other portions of the building named after them (the minimum "suggested gift" is $100,000). Major contributors this year have included the Leo Freedman Foundation ($1 million, to be distributed over six years) and the Joan Irvine Smith and Athalie R. Clarke Foundation ($100,000). Next month, the museum will launch a $3-million endowment drive, the first step toward raising a $15 million cushion against the day when city funding will be only a memory.

In its eagerness to line its pockets, the museum ruffled some feathers last month when the Orange County American Italian Renaissance Foundation was permitted to name not only the hall of Spanish exploration but also three of the pre-Columbian galleries in return for a $250,000 donation and a bronze bust of Christopher Columbus. Reaction from local American Indians was mixed but guardedly pragmatic.

Public areas have been enlarged with an eye toward staging gala openings for members and toward luring individuals eager to host their own social events at the museum--for a $15,000 annual Director's Circle fee. Other major support groups include the Fellows ($1,000 annual membership, $500 for members under 40), the Curator's Circle ($5,000), and the Corporate Fellows ($2,000). At the other end of the scale, senior citizens and students can become museum members for $20, individuals for $30 and families for $40.

Sometime in the early 21st Century, the museum is expected to be the linchpin of a 90-acre Bowers Museum District, a cultural and commercial development bounded by Main and 17th streets and the Santa Ana Freeway.

Hatched in 1986 by the Bowers' board of governors as a way of wooing major commercial developers to North Main Street, the development would include an "arts plaza" facing the museum on Main Street, several additional museums, each with a different focus, as well as hotels, restaurants, shops, movie theaters and housing.

So far, the only concrete proposal is for a $37.5 million science center at 20th and Main streets. The three-story, 80,000-square-foot hands-on Discovery Science Center has received more than $14 million in pledges, donations and other contributions, including $10 million from the City of Santa Ana. The city's contribution--which consists of land for the museum (the site of the Bowers' new parking lot) and land for a city-built parking structure to be shared with the Bowers--is contingent on the center's ability to meet its multi-million dollar goal.

What: Opening of the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art.

When: Opens to the public on Sunday, Oct. 18, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Regular museum hours will be 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

Where: The Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana.

Whereabouts: Santa Ana (5) Freeway to 17th Street, right on Main Street.

Wherewithal: Admission is free on Sunday, Oct. 18. Regular general admission is $4.50; children under 12, $1.50; seniors and students with ID, $3.

Where to call: (714) 567-3600.

Bowers Bits

WHAT'S NEW:

Twice as much exhibition space, including four new galleries for temporary shows.

Second floor of old building converted to gallery space.

Restaurant (opening in December) overlooking the courtyard.

Enlarged gift shop.

Multipurpose auditorium.

Up-to-date lighting, climate control and security systems.

A new parking facility, across from 20th Street, adding about 130 new spaces.

Elevator for the disabled.

Entrance arcade and entrance plaza.

Sculpture courtyard.

For the staff: research library added; storage, preparation and administrative space enlarged and improved.

WHAT'S STILL THERE:

Familiar facade with bell-tower entrance.

The courtyard and original plantings.

First-floor California history and Native American galleries.

Original ceilings on upstairs galleries.

Second-floor balcony, restored with open view of courtyard.

Original 80-space parking lot.

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