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Looking Ahead by Looking Back

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Crossing the threshold of Victor Gail and Dick Oxford’s neat little house in the Belmont Shore district of Long Beach is akin to stepping back into American history. From the gleaming wood cabinets, desks and tables they use every day to the comfortable upholstered chairs where they sit and chat with visitors to the paintings and needlework displayed on walls, the immaculately maintained residence is filled with museum-quality examples of furnishings and artworks found in American homes more than 100 years ago.

Entering the Long Beach Museum of Art’s small exhibition of about 25 pieces from the Gail Oxford Collection, as the collectors call it, is also a bit of a shock. While the museum is lodged in a historic building and exhibitions of fine decorative arts are fairly standard museum fare, this particular institution is best known for its avant-garde video programs and exhibitions of contemporary art.

For this show, museum director Harold B. Nelson has selected objects that represent the earliest period of the collection, largely from the 17th and early 18th centuries, and he included some items made in Europe but commonly exported to America. Installed in a room with mustard walls and accompanied by educational text, the assembly of furniture, ceramics, pewter ware and needlepoint provides an abrupt change of pace from the video viewing room on one side and the 50-year survey of Southern California ceramics on the other.

Called “Bountiful Harvest: American Decorative Arts From the Gail Oxford Collection,” the exhibition is more than an aberration. It announces a new dimension in the museum’s program. While introducing the little-known local collection to the public, the show also launches a planned series of annual exhibitions from the Gail Oxford holdings and lets it be known that the bulk of the collection eventually may be donated to the Long Beach museum.

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The collectors cheerfully acknowledge this tentative plan. But, for the moment, they are simply enjoying a bit of limelight as the story of their acquisitive success becomes known. “Had we lived on the East Coast, this never would have happened,” Oxford says with a sly smile. “There would have been too much competition.”

No kidding. While they have scoured antique shops and shows across the country during some 30 years of collecting, they have found most of their treasures in and around Long Beach, where they have lived for 50 years. Now retired--Gail was a program coordinator for American Borax and Oxford was a surveyor--they are men of relatively modest means who can’t afford to throw money around at highly publicized auctions. When something great comes along, they have to sell something from the collection to buy it, Gail says.

But this is not a case of investment collecting. “I’ve always bought what I liked and what fits in here,” Gail says. Indeed, he and Oxford are so at home with their collection, they had to empty the socks, underwear and sweaters out of an elegant high chest of drawers, made in New York around 1690-1720, to loan it to the museum. Three other early 18th century pieces in the exhibition--a walnut and white pine desk from Boston, a maple couch from Philadelphia and a cherry, pine and chestnut trestle-based hutch table, probably from Connecticut--were removed from the den.

But accustomed as they are to inhabiting a veritable museum, the collectors didn’t grow up with fine antiques. “We were lucky if we had a chair to sit on, both of us,” Oxford says.

Now numbering about 350 pieces, the collection began in the 1960s with Gail’s passion for antiques and his sharp eye for quality. He remains the guiding light, but Oxford has become very knowledgeable too, and--as a 12th-generation American who knows his family history--he feels a strong connection to the objects in his domestic environment.

But Gail is the primary sleuth, and he loves to tell stories about discovering fabulous furniture on the streets of Long Beach. “The first thing I acquired was completely accidental,” he says of a Massachusetts cherry wood high boy chest in Tom’s bedroom. “I was driving on Broadway, and I saw a young fellow who was opening an antique shop. He was carrying the chest into the store and I thought, ‘Oh boy, that looks good. Better stop the car.’ ”

The fledgling shopkeeper had inherited his stock. He didn’t know the value of what he had and only wanted to get rid of it, so he was pleased to snag a customer.

As a precaution, Gail took a drawer from the towering chest to Tom Potter, an established dealer in Long Beach, who advised Gail to grab the chest. “The price was only $750, but I had to borrow money to buy it,” Gail says--with no regrets.

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The high chest of drawers in the exhibition--the collection’s rarest piece, which appears in John Kirk’s book “American Furniture and the British Tradition to 1830,” and is similar to chests at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York--was another chance discovery. Gail spied it one Sunday in a shop on Redondo Avenue on a trip to a nearby grocery store. Initially he didn’t know what he had, but he sensed that it was special. After doing some research, he sent a photograph of the chest to the late Benno Forman, a specialist in American furniture at Winterthur, and got an enthusiastic response--first by letter and later in a personal visit.

Talking about the value of the collection is in bad taste, Gail says, but he doesn’t mind pointing out that prime examples of American furniture similar to his now brings tens of thousands--even hundreds of thousands--of dollars at auction.

The change in the market is a mixed blessing, however. Given the limited supply of good material and the growing sophistication of collectors, Gail says, it’s nearly impossible to find great bargains--even in Long Beach.

The exhibition continues to Oct. 19. Information: (562) 439-2119.

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A ROOM OF HER OWN: In the wake of Santa Fe’s widely heralded opening of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum this past July, the University of New Mexico’s Harwood Museum in Taos is unveiling its new Agnes Martin Gallery in a three-day celebration, Oct. 31-Nov. 2. The octagonal space will be dedicated to the permanent exhibition of seven abstract paintings donated by the renowned 85-year-old artist, who lives in Taos and exhibited the same group of works at the museum in 1994.

The Martin gallery is the centerpiece of a yearlong expansion and renovation project that adds 4,000 square feet of space and six new galleries to the museum’s historic adobe structure. The Harwood Museum specializes in New Mexico’s multicultural heritage and Taos’ role in the development of American art. Its 1,200-piece collection includes early Hispanic art and works by modernists Marsden Hartley and John Marin and contemporary artists Larry Bell, Ken Price and Vija Celmins.

Information: (505) 758-9826.

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ART AS MONEYMAKER: In the latest effort to prove that art doesn’t just cost money, it earns its keep, the city of Santa Monica’s Cultural Affairs Division has published “The Economic Impact of the Arts in Santa Monica.” The 16-page report, compiled by AMS Planning & Research of Petaluma, surveys nonprofit arts organizations and individual artists, plus commercial entertainment and arts-related industries. The study concludes that these organizations and businesses account for 26,000 jobs and up to $1.27 billion in economic activity per year in Santa Monica.

Information: (310) 458-8350.

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SIX-STORY EXTRAVAGANZA: “Downtown Lives!"--an annual celebration of the downtown arts community--is scheduled for Friday through Sunday and the two following weekends at a new location: the former University Club building at 630-640 W. 6th St. Works by hundreds of artists will be exhibited on six floors of the building. The three-weekend event also offers panel discussions, an art fashion show, activities for children, music, poetry readings and performances. Information: (213) 625-3232.


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