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O.C. ART / CATHY CURTIS : Museum Adds Realism to Renovation Picture : Newport Harbor’s scaled-down solution to its space problem may prove that less is more, especially in these economic and social climes.

It’s hardly news that the go-go years are gone. We’ve veered from the fast lane to econo-car, buy-it-on-sale, pay-off-the-credit-card mode. So it didn’t come as a surprise last week to find out that the Newport Harbor Art Museum has firmly turned its sights away from commissioning a major building from a major--or even a not-so-major--architect.

In fact, the museum’s latest solution to its perennial problem of insufficient space to exhibit both traveling shows and objects from the permanent collection sounds reasonable and workable.

The plan is to create a two-building museum by moving into the similarly nondescript Newport Center structure next door, a space that will be vacated next spring by the library when it moves to a new building. Obviously, this is not the best-of-all-possible-worlds solution, but it it does seem to be the best solution for this particular world.

When the renovation is complete, the present museum building would be enlarged slightly to house five galleries of various sizes (doubling the current gallery space), collection-storage and preparation areas, and the bookstore and cafe. The interior of the library building would be reconfigured to contain a small auditorium, a multipurpose room, classrooms, a “hands-on” gallery for children and administrative offices.

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From the outside, hardly anything will look different, since the additions will be on the rear portions of the east and west sides of the museum building. At best, the entrance may be spiffed up a bit, and there might be a walkway of some kind between the two buildings.

But even the design by internationally famed architect Renzo Piano for a $30-million, 87,000-square-foot new building lacked a fancy facade, since the structure was supposed to nestle unobtrusively into a Pacific Coast Highway hillside where local codes preclude roof lines from blocking neighbors’ views of the ocean.

A more pertinent similarity between the Piano plan and the renovation is that both provide for approximately the same amount of gallery space: about 18,500 square feet. Curiously enough, one key reason (other than escalating costs) that Piano’s plan ultimately was deemed unworkable was the lack of sufficient gallery space.

Museum director Michael Botwinick took pains to point out last week that the gallery space in the renovation would be about 40% of the entire space, versus 23% of the total space in the Piano design. Given the modest scale of the new project, nobody could say that the museum isn’t doing its damnedest to provide as much gallery space as possible right now.

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Yet it is hard not to view the museum’s modest building plan as a kissin’ cousin of its new, let’s-not-make-waves attitude toward exhibitions.

Under Botwinick, the museum’s emphasis has shifted from the ground-breaking scholarly exhibitions of modern art and cutting-edge shows of contemporary art that put the museum on the national art map in the late 1980s.

Newport Harbor’s new stress--imperfectly realized thus far--is on luring Orange County viewers who don’t know (or care) much about contemporary art.

Once a lively rival of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, Newport Harbor in recent years has not been coming up with the sort of smart, edgy, gotta-see-'em shows that lure the tastemakers and the younger art crowd.

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Although times are tough everywhere in Southern California, a look northward at “Rolywholyover A Circus,” a highly adventurous tribute to the late avant-garde composer John Cage, which opened last week at the MOCA, is proof that some contemporary art museums are still breaking new ground.

Still, if the endowment sought in addition to building funds will enable Newport Harbor to rev up to former staffing levels--which Botwinick said was his goal--that’s good news. (The museum lost one-third of its staff in a series of layoffs during the past couple of years; back in the ‘80s, two curators were planning shows and a full-time editor worked on exhibition catalogues; now there is just one curator and no editor.)

Similarly, the presence of a real auditorium in the library building--a first for the museum, which has had to make do with the cramped Lyon Room--is likely to stimulate cross-disciplinary programming.

Maybe someday--along with the crowd-pleasing old movies (i.e. the recent Marlene Dietrich series) and the exhibition-related lectures already on the schedule--the museum will bring back the “Contemporary Culture” series, with its cornucopia of forward-looking music and performance art that helped bring people up to speed on the outer realms of contemporary art.

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A staff member attuned to the “coolest” blend of alternative offerings might attract students at UC Irvine and other colleges, perhaps with the help of campus liaisons.

Two post-renovation novelties definitely on the books are the permanent-collection gallery--a space that has never existed as such in the museum--and a gallery set aside specifically to show large-scale installations (by such artists as Bill Viola and Chris Burden) that are part of the collection.

So at last the breadth and depth of the collection of post-World War II California art will be revealed for public consumption. But what if there isn’t all that much thrilling stuff to see?

Bits and pieces of the collection have been on view over the years, and the same key works--by Elmer Bischoff, David Park, Vija Celmins, Joe Goode, Ed Ruscha, John McLaughlin and others--tend to get top billing. Whenever a curator has sought a bit more variety, out come some appalling clunkers.

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We can only hope there is secret stuff hidden in the storage vault--or likely to be donated soon by museum supporters heartened by the thought of being able to see their gifts actually on display.

Much also depends on attracting collectors with adventurous tastes--the sort who eagerly collect the new work out of Los Angeles and are willing to part with some of it. (At the Laguna Art Museum, that fresh-blood approach has done wonders to perk up the scene.)

Another novel aspect of the renovation plan is the space allocated for educational purposes--classrooms and a children’s gallery in the library building that reflect the museum’s much-touted emphasis on education.

In an era when public schools view art education as a frill and two-career parents may not have the time (or interest or knowledge) to foster interest in art, art museums have the lonely task of spreading the word. At the same time, the new spaces presumably would free the museum’s Irvine Gallery from looking like a community art center every time the museum wants to show the handiwork of schoolchildren.

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Obviously, many hopes ride on a museum building project, even a modest one like Newport Harbor’s. But first, the project has to get off the ground.

It’s worth noting that the mind-set driving the “econo-car” renovation is much the same as the one that built the current museum building, which opened in September, 1977. After plans for a $16-million cultural center in Newport Beach collapsed (due to a perceived lack of economic support--sound familiar?), the museum followed up on cash pledges from the Ahmanson, Irvine and Steele foundations and asked the Irvine Co. for a land gift.

In 1974, the development company pledged two acres in Newport Center, contingent on the museum’s ability to raise all the funding for what was conceived as a modest, $500,000 building. (Lest readers fall off their chairs, that sum would be roughly equivalent to $1.5 million in 1992 dollars.)

Several trustees stressed the need for a simple, functional design, and they won out over others who had hoped for an international architecture competition resulting in a landmark building. The real kicker was the “pro bono” attitude of key board members.

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The building was designed by Ernie Wilson of the Newport Beach-based architectural firm Langdon and Wilson at no cost to the museum, the Koll Co. waived the contractor’s fee, and other expert assistance was also donated.

The question remains whether the museum’s supporters will rally around the fund-raising campaign for the renovation (estimated to cost between $3 million and $4 million) and an endowment fund (which an informed source places at an additional $2 million or so, bringing the total to $5 million or $6 million).

On the one hand, this is a far cry from the $50-million campaign inauspiciously launched for the Piano building; on the other hand, $6 million isn’t exactly peanuts, either. (No timetable has been developed yet for the campaign; the project itself could take 15 months or--if the construction is done in phases--considerably longer.)

One trustee who was asked for his opinion about the feasibility of the campaign said he had no doubts whatsoever that it will be a success, citing the Irvine Co.'s kickoff pledge of $500,000 as a spur to the community at large.

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“I think this expansion is a win-win situation for everyone--for the museum and for the community,” board member Jim Selna said last week. “It’s really in keeping with the ‘90s spirit of doing just as well or better with less resources.”

Is it possible that board members with connections in the building trades might once again donate key services and lighten the load on the folks who have to go looking for cold cash? Or has the recession made such charity impossible today?

The answers to those questions will say a lot about the real state of the local economy, not to mention the level of community support for the museum.

A deeper issue is that the museum--just like Orange County in general--is no longer in the roll-up-your-sleeves mode of the mid-'70s.

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The cultural scene has grown tremendously, and the old spirit of blazing a trail for contemporary art no longer carries the personal urgency of decades past. People who once might have volunteered at the museum out of sheer enthusiasm for art now may be more interested in the social entree provided by membership in one of the museum’s fund-raising councils.

In any event, no museum building project, whether grandiose or humble, is an end in itself. An art museum is only as good as what’s inside: the collection, the staff and the programs they implement.

Dull, inept programming can happen in magnificent spaces, and innovative ideas can flourish in broom closets. We shouldn’t forget that the museum’s critically acclaimed exhibitions of the ‘80s happened within the confines of its too-small-for-comfort building on San Clemente Drive.


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