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Laguna Museum Quiet on Reasons for Desmarais Firing : Institutions: Officials decline to elaborate on an action that some in the Southland arts community find surprising and disturbing.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Laguna Art Museum officials declined Wednesday to elaborate on their reasons for dismissing director Charles Desmarais, while other members of the California arts community continued to express surprise and concern.

Desmarais “helped take a museum that essentially was an adjunct to an art colony and gave it national standing and a national reputation,” said Andy Grundberg, director of the Friends of Photography Ansel Adams Center in San Francisco. “I don’t know the situation there administratively or in terms of management, but I do know as a museum director it’s always shocking to see something handled publicly in a way that reflects badly both on the institution and the people charged with insuring its viability.”

Desmarais’ dismissal Tuesday came amid calls from board president Teri Kennady for “more energy to be put in administration.”

Desmarais responded that he would “dispute any statement that somehow I was doing exhibitions and not running the museum. I’ve never, ever set aside my responsibility for (any) aspect of the museum.”

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On Wednesday, museum staff members said they had been instructed not to discuss the subject with the press and therefore could not say whether the museum’s finances have improved or suffered during Desmarais’ tenure.

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But Desmarais asserted that its deficit had shrunk from $450,000 in 1988 to $118,000 this year. (The total operating budget at the end of the last fiscal year was $1.7 million, he said.)

He also said that National Endowment for the Arts grants received under his directorship totaled more than $500,000 and that $1.8 million in gifts and pledges had been added to the museum’s endowment.

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Kennady said Wednesday it’s true that Desmarais made financial gains as well as artistic ones by bringing in critically acclaimed and popular exhibits.

“He did a good job,” she said, “but the board just needed some other avenues covered . . . which I’d rather not discuss.”

“We really see a great future for the museum, and we want to continue to grow and we need to really focus on internal stability of the museum, and how to make our plans happen.”

Meanwhile, Joan B. Rehnborg, a staunch supporter of Desmarais, has resigned as a museum trustee, though it is unclear if her resignation is a result of the dismissal. She did not return calls Wednesday, and the museum would not comment on the matter.

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Former trustee Mary Newman, whose term expired in September, said she was outraged. Describing Desmarais as “an excellent director,” she said, “There’s no excuse for this kind of highhanded, arbitrary” dismissal.

She said she is concerned that the sudden nature of the dismissal “will make it extremely hard to get another director who will want to take the risk of being treated the same way.”

But Stuart Spence, a collector from South Pasadena who serves on the museum’s advisory board and is a major donor, said: “As Laguna has grown over these five years, there has been a feeling that there needs to be much more emphasis on the business, the long-range funding. It did seem (Desmarais) was much more interested in curating his shows than in raising funds.”

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Elsewhere in the local arts community, Naida Osline, cultural services supervisor for the city of Huntington Beach, characterized Desmarais’ departure as “a big loss.” Under his six years of leadership, she said, the museum had become “more energetic and more interesting, and he was more in touch (than his predecessors) with the contemporary arts dialogue.”

David Emmes, producing artistic director of South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, said: “Desmarais moved the Laguna Art Museum forward, and under his leadership, it seemed to take on a new vitality.” Desmarais “was very committed to serving” the local scene at large, Emmes added.

Ilene Segalove, a prominent artist from Los Angeles--whose first solo museum exhibition anywhere was curated at the Laguna by Desmarais in 1990--praised his artistic vision and his ability to relate to artists.

“He continued to pull out the stops in innovative curating,” she said. “And he could wear his suit and look very official and go to board meetings--and then hang with the rest of us, which is rare for museum directors.

“He had no allegiance except to doing real high quality work.”

Tuesday, director Michael Botwinick of the Newport Harbor Art Museum, Orange County’s other prominent visual arts institution, said that he was “deeply surprised by the news” of Desmarais’ dismissal and that he thinks Desmarais “has done an extraordinary job.” Exhibitions staged under Desmarais have “brought the museum great steps forward,” Botwinick said, measuring the museum’s growth as extraordinary.

Laguna board president Kennady agreed that Desmarais “has been a visionary director for this museum and has enhanced its reputation tremendously. But this is a new time, and he and the museum have different needs.”

Under Desmarais, the museum mounted several acclaimed exhibits including “Kustom Kulture,” a car show last summer that was one of the most popular exhibits in the institution’s 75-year history.

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“Kustom Kulture” and other Laguna exhibits traveled to other museums around the country, helping to shape an improved profile for the Laguna museum, which only a few years ago had a reputation for far more mainstream exhibits.

Before joining the Laguna museum in 1988, Desmarais, a 44-year-old New York native, was director of the California Museum of Photography in Riverside for seven years. Before that, he was a curator at the Friends of Photography in Carmel and director of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography.

The museum’s curator of exhibitions, Susan M. Anderson, has been appointed acting director, and a search committee has been formed to replace Desmarais, Kennady said.


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