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Museum painted into corner?

The Orange County Museum of Art was tooling along, a sporty little contender in the contemporary art world, its reputation sparkling from the good reviews its exhibitions consistently have earned in Southern California and across the nation.

And then, suddenly, it got splashed with grime. At least that’s how some critics see it, although museum director Dennis Szakacs insists there was nothing blameworthy in OCMA’s sale of 18 California Impressionist paintings from the early 1900s. A private collector, whose name the museum won’t divulge, bought the pieces in March for $963,000, a price many experts think was about half what the museum should have gotten.

The transaction, approved unanimously by OCMA’s board, has put the Newport Beach museum in the cross hairs of one of the art world’s many controversies over “deaccessioning,” the term for when a museum sells art from its collection.

Until June 15, when The Times first reported the sale, OCMA was known primarily for projecting a long reach for a small museum. Eight exhibitions launched from its hidden-away, nondescript quarters on a side street -- or organized in collaboration with others -- had toured 24 cities since Szakacs’ arrival in 2003 from New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art. OCMA’s curatorial brainchildren went to Philadelphia, New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago, Houston and lower Manhattan.

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Under Szakacs, “they have done as fine work as they have done in their history, and have garnered national attention again,” said Paul Schimmel, chief curator of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art. Schimmel helped write an admired chapter in OCMA’s history as its curator during the 1980s, when it was known as the Newport Harbor Art Museum. “I think highly of what they’ve been doing, and I did not think that 10 years ago,” he said.

OCMA, which traces its origins to a grass-roots, harbor-side gallery established in 1962, lost momentum when a $50-million expansion plan died in 1992, and a financially motivated merger with the Laguna Art Museum turned bitter in 1996. Szakacs brought stability and focus after years of curatorial vacancies and the 2001 death of museum director Naomi Vine. Now, in a fallen economy, OCMA has had to pull back. It has suspended a campaign to fund a new building in a far more prominent spot next to the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. Two years after peaking at $5.1 million, the budget has been shaved to $3.6 million, and the exhibition schedule has been halved to five a year. But the museum continues to run deficit-free, said Szakacs (pronounced Sake-us), still thinks big and plans to spend a record $800,000 to mount next year’s highly anticipated “Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series.”

It’s also in a good position to buy art, after the nearly $1-million infusion from the sale of the 18 paintings. The proceeds will go for acquisitions of the post-1950 works that have been OCMA’s sole focus since 2005. But the private nature of the transaction has brought criticism and speculation that the museum must have something to hide.

Critics say OCMA, by quietly selling the paintings, denied other museums a chance to bid -- and perhaps didn’t get as much money as it could have.

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The Assn. of Art Museum Directors, a leading professional group, doesn’t condemn private sales, but its three “preferred methods” all preserve at least a chance of keeping works in the public realm: striking a deal with another museum, selling at auction or selling to a reputable art dealer. The voluntary guidelines advise that “the process be publicly transparent.”

After The Times was tipped about the sale, an unusual thing happened: Museum directors, typically allergic to controversy, sounded off, politely but firmly, against what Szakacs and the OCMA board had done. Bolton Colburn of the Laguna Art Museum and Jean Stern of the Irvine Museum said they should have been given a chance to rustle up the cash to buy the 18 works. Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, opined that OCMA had been “uncollegial” toward its two neighbors, especially Laguna.

The paintings were part of that town’s “patrimony,” Davies noted, because they dated from its beginnings as an art colony, and most had been in the Laguna Art Museum’s collection for decades. But in 1996, a financially driven merger with the Newport Harbor Art Museum transferred the Laguna collection to the newly launched entity, OCMA. The union quickly came undone, amid lawsuits and outrage from Laguna residents, who felt their museum had been stolen. The merged collections were shared under a negotiated settlement until 2004, when Szakacs says he sought to end lingering tensions by sending more than 3,000 works back to Laguna. The 18 California Impressionists were not included.

Several experts, including three art dealers who specialize in California Impressionists, have said that the two finest paintings, landscapes by William Wendt and Granville Redmond, should together have fetched $1.5 million or more, and that altogether the 18 probably were worth at least double what OCMA received.

“I wish I had that deal,” said Scott Shields, chief curator of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, which has been buying works in the genre also known as plein-air painting.

Scot Levitt, director of fine arts for the Bonhams & Butterfields auction house in Los Angeles, said he was miffed that OCMA didn’t check with him, since California art is a Bonhams specialty, unlike Christie’s, which he said OCMA had consulted instead. He said the paintings would “not necessarily, but quite possibly” have fetched more at auction than the museum got.

Szakacs insists that the sale broke no rules and that it was an arm’s-length transaction at a fair price established after consulting with an unspecified major auction house and an unnamed Los Angeles appraiser often used by art museums. He’s willing to share the buyer’s identity with museums interested in borrowing the paintings. The collector lives in Laguna, Szakacs says, had no previous connection to OCMA and is known for lending works to museums.

Szakacs says colleagues and OCMA board members he’s talked to about the sale have wondered what the fuss is about -- and so does he. “I’ve heard nothing but support,” he said.

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Board chairman David Emmes II says the trustees stand “100% behind Dennis.”

Weary of seeing OCMA tethered to the Laguna Art Museum in news reports because of their long-ago entanglement, Szakacs would rather point to how the museum has cultivated young audiences, how annual attendance grew from 20,000 just before he arrived to 55,000 and 50,000 in the last two fiscal years, how shows OCMA launched have landed on critics’ annual best-of lists in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, and how the museum’s November 2007 retrospective on painter Mary Heilmann landed on the covers of two top art magazines, Artforum and Art in America.

But it may not be so easy to change the subject.

Though crediting OCMA with playing “a very important role” in the contemporary art world, Joel Wachs, a former Los Angeles city councilman who heads the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in New York, said he “was appalled” by what he’s read about its deaccessioning.

The Warhol Foundation backed OCMA’s recent exhibitions on Heilmann and Peter Saul with grants, but now “we will have to reevaluate” whether to continue, Wachs said. “It doesn’t pass the smell test initially. I’ll have to talk to Dennis” to hear his version, he said, “but it’s cause for alarm.”

The best practice is for museums to sell works openly “so there can be no appearance of impropriety,” said Bruce Altshuler, head of New York University’s program in museum studies. “Immediately, when people hear that it went to a private person directly, questions get raised.”

“It’s a terrible thing for a museum when the headlines that it makes are about collegiality, decency and ethics,” said Selma Holo, director of USC’s Fisher Museum of Art and the university’s International Museum Institute. She suspects that the “icky relationship, the bad marriage and divorce” between the Laguna museum and OCMA, lingering from the 1990s, played into OCMA’s decision not to alert the Laguna museum and give it a chance -- even if only a one-week window -- to raise $1 million to keep the paintings public.

Szakacs and Emmes say they’ve seen no signs that OCMA’s fundraising could suffer.

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With the paintings sold, Szakacs says, the last tangible link to the two museums’ mutual history is gone. If he is right that the controversy will blow over, the sporty little contemporary museum he drives can cruise ahead, with no further worries about being slowed by baggage from its past.

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mike.boehm@latimes.com


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