Merger Painful but Necessary : As Donations to the Arts Shrink, Consolidation Makes Sense

For some, the decision was a necessary step into the future, for others it was unthinkable. On Feb. 27, trustees of the Newport Harbor Art Museum and the Laguna Art Museum voted to merge. The new museum will be called the Orange County Museum of Art, with the aim of emphasizing California art from the late 19th century to the present day.

Financial imperatives drove the merger, with the aim of giving the county a large regional art institution that could stand as a complement to performing arts. But the focus and mission of a newly constituted facility have received less attention than concerns about community presence.

As the decision was being made, pickets carried "Save Laguna Art Museum" placards. Supporters noted that the city already had lost two significant cultural assets, the Laguna Chamber Music Society and Ballet Pacifica, which moved. After the board approval, some opponents of the merger even vowed to try to recall the Laguna museum's board of trustees.

The depth of feeling at the merging of a local landmark in a regional endeavor is understandable. However, Gilbert LeVasseur Jr., the Laguna board president, who led the movement to combine the museums, had noted that public and private arts support had dwindled for all nonprofit organizations over the past decade.

In the absence of sufficient local sources of revenue such as memberships, it is difficult to find too much fault with consolidation efforts. Some of those who lamented the change might have had a hand in strengthening the local institution had they supported it more in the past.

The majority of the Laguna museum's 1,500 members now must ratify the merger. The board has said it would name a planning committee to study whether to move the two collections to a single site. The plan has been to keep the Laguna facility open for as long as possible before looking to move.

One thing that could ease the pain of merger would be to find a way to keep the Laguna museum open for the long term. It is good the Laguna trustees agreed last week to try to keep a satellite facility in town.

Even with the possibility of a merger, this might go a long way to relieve anxiety that something has been ripped out of the heart of Laguna.

Considering the alternatives, some Laguna presence would be welcome as a signal of community identification.

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