Missing art portrayed as inventory misstep

Newport Beach will probably change the way it tracks its public art pieces, updating records at least annually, City Manager Dave Kiff said in an email this week.

Previously, the city hadn’t regularly updated its inventory, he wrote, and as of Wednesday, five pieces — donated to the city or purchased at a combined value of $675 — were unaccounted for. Those were out of an inventory of 236 pieces with a total known value of $841,650.

“We are not sure if the five are actually lost — it’s generally our record keeping that has not been up to par,” Kiff wrote.

And with a beefed-up focus on the city’s culture, including a nearly $1-million investment into new art and events, Mayor Keith Curry said ensuring that things are in order is key.

“It’s important that we maintain a good inventory of all of our art,” he said Thursday.

He added that moves to improve practices wouldn’t require council action, and that corrective steps had already been taken.

After decades of receiving and purchasing art that runs the gamut in terms of value, from unnumbered prints to large commissioned sculptures, the city’s official record of its art became patchy, Kiff explained.

“Over the years of Newport Beach’s history, well-meaning residents gave us stuff. Some with value, some not,” he wrote. “I think folks back then didn’t want to hurt the donors’ feelings and accepted them graciously, adding them to our art inventory.”

As a result, he wrote, pieces of art that had deteriorated to the point of having little or no value were disposed of and taken out of the inventory.

“One problem is that our record-keeping was not robust enough to state each piece’s reason for no longer being in the inventory,” he wrote. “To me, yes, that’s a problem. It’s more likely a problem with bad record keeping than irresponsible art management.”

The changes follow an Orange County Register story from earlier this week reporting that the city had misplaced dozens of pieces, according to two inventories taken nearly a decade apart.

The story also reported that cultural arts coordinator Jana Barbier, whose job included maintaining records of public art, stepped down shortly after the newspaper requested the inventories.

Kiff said Barbier’s resignation was “personal and private.”

“I think very highly of Jana and will miss her a great deal,” he said.

Barbier, who could not be reached for comment, was on the city’s payroll from Sept. 24, 2001, to May 17, 2013.