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Laguna Art Gets Hard-Won Freedom

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a long and bitter battle by members of this community who were outraged at losing control over their 78-year-old art museum, the Orange County Museum of Art on Tuesday returned the deed of the Laguna Art Museum site to the LAM Heritage Corp., the nonprofit entity OCMA established as caretaker for the Laguna site.

The transfer of the deed marks the independence of LAM and the end of nearly nine months of control by the Newport Beach-based institution formed last year by merging Newport Harbor Art Museum with the Laguna museum.

According to the Feb. 20 agreement between Heritage Corp. and OCMA, the Laguna Beach museum receives ownership of the building, the “Laguna Art Museum” name and $1 million, representing half its original endowment.

The 3,800-piece art collection the Laguna museum contributed to the OCMA merger will remain in a third-party trust along with the 2,360 pieces formerly owned by Newport Harbor. Both museums will have access to the collection for exhibition purposes. OCMA will retain responsibility for storage and insurance of all the art.

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“I’m hoping that sharing two great collections will be a model for other small museums,” said G. Ray Kerciu, president of the Heritage Corp. board. “We look at it in good faith: that these two museums will build a positive relationship in the future.”

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Each museum board will appoint five members to a committee that will oversee the joint collection of California art spanning the mid-19th century to the present.

The Heritage Corp. will receive $77,000 a year over a 10-year period. The $770,000 total represents half the proceeds from the auction sale last year of the Laguna museum’s Paul Outerbridge photography collection. This money will be earmarked for the purchase of art.

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Bolton Colburn, former senior curator at the Laguna Art Museum and at OCMA, is LAM’s new director and chief curator. The Heritage Corp. also has hired Andrea Lee Harris, who graduated last year with a bachelor of arts degree from the nearby Art Institute of Southern California, as administrator-registrar.

An art rental and sales gallery will open Saturday, in conjunction with Laguna Renaissance Celebration, an evening fund-raising event. The museum must raise about $500,000 annually for operating and capital expenses.

Laguna Art Museum’s first show will be “The Southern California Open Juried Exhibition,” opening April 12 (through June 15) with art chosen by Henry T. Hopkins, director of the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center.

The museum will retain its bookstore and education programs, including regular docent tours and special tours for school and adult groups.

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In other LAM news, Motivated Museum Members--the group that opposed the merger of the two museums, alleging trustee deception and merger election irregularities--has dropped its lawsuit against OCMA in return for several concessions.

Chief among them is a rewording of the autonomy-granting agreement to allow custodianship of LAM’s assets by the city of Laguna Beach (or its designated representative) rather than by OCMA, in the event of default by the Heritage Foundation.

In return, OCMA has required that its assets be assumed by the county of Orange in case of default, rather than by Heritage Corp.

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While both MMM and Heritage Corp. object to the latter portion of the amended agreement, negotiation on this issue will be postponed until an unspecified later date, according to Kerciu.

MMM also got OCMA to drop a provision that would have limited the Laguna museum’s purchases from the Outerbridge sale proceeds to art made before 1947. In addition, anyone who made a bequest to LAM before the merger will have the option of designating either LAM or OCMA as beneficiary.

MMM representatives are not commenting on the results of their demand that OCMA pay the approximately $80,000 MMM owes for legal services in its efforts to break up the merger.

Heritage on Tuesday approved the amended agreement, after OCMA agreed to return documents and photographs relating to the artist-founders of the museum as well as catalogs produced by the museum.

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Archival records and catalogs that were at the Laguna Beach site immediately before the merger are specified in the OCMA-Heritage agreement as belonging to the Heritage Corp. after April 1. They would be used as part of an archive for scholarly research.


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