Back in January, Suzanne Bellah knew the Carnegie Art Museum was on a roll.
Attendance was up, as were the membership rolls. And the 20-year-old, city-owned institution was growing accustomed to showcasing traveling exhibitions of some of the biggest names in contemporary art.
Still, the museum’s director was floored that month when the Carnegie was included on a short list of venues tapped to receive artwork from one of the country’s leading private collections of contemporary art.
“We were delighted and totally thrilled that we were named to receive the gifts,” said Bellah, recalling the mood at the museum when the Los Angeles-based Peter and Eileen Norton Collection announced its donation. “It was stupendous.”
Now, Bellah is betting that the gift of 30 artworks, scheduled to go on view for the first time next month, will help further transform the Carnegie from a small museum to a regionally significant exhibition space.
“We’ve been in the process of growing into an important mid-sized museum serving Ventura County and north L.A. County,” Bellah said from her office at the museum, housed in a historical neoclassical building constructed by Andrew Carnegie in 1906 in the heart of downtown. “The Norton gift has given us a huge shift in that direction.”
Though most of the 30 pieces from the Norton collection are by younger artists early in their careers, they also include work by respected artists Robert Gil de Montes and Linda Vallejo that were included to enhance the museum’s collection of Latino-themed art.
Gil de Montes, the best-known artist of the group, has been commissioned for a number of high-profile public art installations, including at one of the ornate entrances to the Red Line subway in Los Angeles.
Vallejo, a Long Beach painter and photographer, was the first among the group to donate more pieces of her work to add to the Norton gift, an act Bellah hopes the other artists will follow.
“That’s one of the benefits of what the Nortons did,” she said. “It puts us in the sights of other donors.’
The prime motivation behind the gift to the Carnegie, and the nearly 1,000 pieces to 28 other mainly regional museums in the United States and England, was to strengthen the collections of smaller institutions outside major cities.
“We wanted to reward the spunky regional museums,” said Susan Cahan, senior curator for the Nortons. “And the Carnegie seemed to fit the bill.”
Cahan also hopes that the Carnegie and the other regional museums that received the Norton work will start a trend by setting themselves apart from similar institutions that try to mimic the collections of some of the world’s most prominent museums.
“It gets kind of boring to go from city to city and see a museum try to be a cookie-cutter of a major one, like the Metropolitan [in New York],” said Cahan. “I’d like to see museums move away from a generic notion of what a good museum is supposed to be.”
Although the strength of the Carnegie’s collection has for years been based on California Impressionism, the museum has recently added work by California contemporary artists to its holdings and increased the number of shows devoted to contemporary art, Bellah said.
Both this year and last, the museum has featured traveling exhibitions that included work by some of the most celebrated artists of the last half of the 20th century, such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.
With the help of the Cornerstones, the Carnegie’s nonprofit fund-raising group, the museum also purchased a well-known mural by contemporary painter Frank Romero, “The History of the Chicano Movimiento.”
Boosters of Younger Artists
And before the Norton donation, the Lannan Foundation, a Santa Fe, N.M.-based charitable arts organization, donated 10 pieces from its collection of contemporary art.
The Nortons, who started collecting in the 1980s, have long been known for their interest in younger artists, Cahan said.
Peter Norton is the creator of the Norton anti-virus software. In 1990, he sold his company to Symantec Corp. and became more involved with art collecting and philanthropy.
Bellah, who joined the Carnegie as a curator 17 years ago and was promoted to director in 1995, said she is pleased with the selection of work the Nortons made for the museum, Ventura County’s only institution dedicated exclusively to showcasing fine art.
She predicted that with work by younger artists on its walls, the Carnegie will draw a new crowd of younger people, while still serving the museum’s traditional base that tends to prefer impressionist and landscape-style work.
“I believe we’ll be serving two audiences with our expanded scope of work,” she said.
But Ojai artist Michael Dvortcsak wonders how much interest exists in the county for contemporary art.
“It seems like the Carnegie is our only venue of exhibition,” said Dvortcsak, who has added two pieces to the museum’s growing collection of contemporary art. “We have such limited gallery facilities.”
Harry Reese, chairman of the studio art department at UC Santa Barbara, warned that cutting-edge contemporary art can spark controversy, particularly in a community with few venues exhibiting art of that type.
“Any gift to a museum is a gift to the community,” he said. “It remains to be seen whether the gift is a magnet that draws people in, or if it works the other way magnets sometimes do: by repelling.”
As the Carnegie prepares to open its exhibition of the Norton donation on Sept. 23, supporters of the museum were unequivocal in crediting Bellah for drawing recognition from the top-ranking collectors.
“Suzanne Bellah is the most serious art curator in Ventura County,” said Bill Lasarow, publisher of Thousand Oaks-based Artscene, a monthly guide to exhibitions in fine art spaces throughout Southern California.