Museum Merger Vote Deadline Delayed 21 Days

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a partial victory for local residents, Laguna Art Museum trustees voted Tuesday to delay the deadline for a vote on the merger with Newport Harbor Art Museum for 21 days.

Laguna museum members had a March 30 deadline to ratify or reject the trustees' recent vote to merge. But Save Laguna Art Museum (SLAM), a coalition of museum members and community residents, threatened to seek an injunction postponing the deadline by 90 days.

Laguna trustees said Tuesday that a 90-day delay could jeopardize its various requests for grants, already on hold pending a merger. But moving the deadline to April 20 will give the community sufficient time "to look at this deal," Trustee David Emmes II said.

"This is a gesture of good faith," he said. "The board is committed to making this work."

SLAM members, some of whom picketed outside while trustees voted inside the museum, last week mailed 1,400 letters urging museum members to vote down the merger. SLAM also has drafted a slate of candidates to replace Laguna trustees in a recall, should SLAM request one, group chairman Gene Felder said.

But Felder indicated before the vote that any reasonable delay might be acceptable to SLAM.

Felder said that money raised by SLAM from upcoming fund-raising dinners and an art auction may be used either to fight the merger or to support a proposed Laguna Beach branch of a merged institution.

SLAM members and Laguna trustees spent six hours Tuesday morning refining plans to keep the Laguna Beach site open. If the two museums do become the Orange County Museum of Art, that institution would fund a third of a satellite's $400,000 annual budget, and a fund-raising group, to be named the Laguna Heritage Council, would have to raise the rest, Emmes said. The council probably would be composed of five to nine members, including SLAM members and city representatives.

Orange County Museum of Art would staff and operate the site, but programming--to include exhibits of work by Laguna Beach artists and the county museum's collections--would be determined by the council and the county museum.

SLAM and Laguna trustees "hope to have a signed agreement" in the next few days about the satellite museum, Emmes said.

If approved, the satellite plan could "substantially change" merger terms agreed upon by both museums, Emmes said.

For instance, Laguna trustees had expected to enter the merger with $500,000 from the sale of the museum building. (While its bluff-side location is attractive, the museum's selling price is greatly reduced because it has no parking, Emmes said.)

However, Newport Harbor board President James V. Selna said the Newport board only will have to approve a satellite plan if it alters the merged museum's bylaws. (Newport's members don't have to ratify the merger.)

The only trustee from either museum to vote no on the merger, Lola Romero Seymour, has resigned from the Newport Harbor board.

"I felt if I couldn't be a team player, I shouldn't be on the team," said Seymour, who voted no because she had too many "unresolved questions" about the merger and possible closure of the Laguna museum.

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