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Our Laguna: Art museum merger attempt still stings

Art that once belonged to the Laguna Art Museum has come home, but not back to the museum.

The Orange County Museum of Art quietly sold 18 pieces of California Impressionist paintings to a Laguna Beach collector, whose name is not being made public. The works were acquired by OCMA in what many in Laguna considered, and still consider, a misbegotten attempt to merge the Laguna and Newport Harbor museums, which eventually cost LAM part of its permanent collection.

“Laguna owned all of them pre-merger,” said Bolton Colburn, director of the Laguna Museum. “Some of the [LAM] collection was retained by Laguna, and some of it retained by OCMA. There were complicated agreements that changed over time after the merger.”

Arts patron Bobbi Cox, recalls that the early agreement was that OCMA owned some of Laguna’s art, but the pieces were to be available to LAM for exhibit on request.

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Cox was a member of Save Laguna Art Museum (SLAM), one of the groups of Laguna Beach residents who fought the merger.

LAM was not made privy to the information that the OCMA pieces were on the block.

Art Collector Sam Goldstein, a Laguna Beach business man one who helped develop the Business Improvement District that funds art projects, reviled the sale.

“It is absolutely reprehensible the OCMA got rid of those pieces without communicating with LAM,” Goldstein said. “It is a tragedy.”

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According to a Monday Los Angeles Times article, the paper learned of the sale from a tip on its Culture Monster arts blog.

“Nothing that OCMA does surprises me,” said Marla Bird, museum board president from 1981 to 1983. “It seems to me that that museum has never been open in its negotiations with Laguna. If not for the fight Laguna Beach residents put up, the Laguna Art Museum would not exist today.

“That’s a stone fact.”

Some of them are currently being shown at the Nevada Art Museum in Reno, Goldner said.

The OCMA pieces reportedly were sold for less than $1 million — a price Colburn said was a bargain, particularly in light of a renaissance of interest in American Impressionists, which includes California plein air painters, collected by LAM and the Irvine Museum founded by Joan Irvine Smith.

“LAM would have tried to raise the money from donors,” Colburn said. “Of the 11 pieces we know about, five were signature pieces in ‘75 Works 75 Years’ [catalog from the museum’s 75th anniversary show in 1993].

“One of the pieces was by William Wendt, another by Edgar Payne, the founding president of the Laguna Art Assn.”

The association was formed by Laguna artists in 1918. They eventually built a gallery on the corner of Cliff Drive and South Coast Highway to showcase and sell their works. The gallery slowly changed its mission and in 1972 officially became the Laguna Beach Museum of Art, later changed to Laguna Art Museum.

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LAM’s permanent collection reflects the mission of the museum and Laguna’s place in art history. Many of the pieces were donated by early Laguna artists and their families.

“Irvine has outstripped us in quantity, but we have some of the prime pieces of California Impressionists, particularly the ones in Laguna Beach,” Colburn said.

Colburn declined to comment further on the agreements, citing confidentiality. OCMA Director Dennis Szakacs is in Europe on a buying trip. Proceeds from the sale of art that no longer meets the standards or the mission of the museum are supposed to be used to buy other art. It is called de-accessioning and it is legal, if heartbreaking for some.

In 1996, LAM’s collection of Paul Outerbridge photographs, some taken in Laguna Beach, was sold at auction. The collection had been donated to the museum by Outerbridge’s widow.

“It caused a stink,” said longtime museum member Gene Felder, who opposed the sale.

But the museum was within its rights to sell the collection, Felder said.

Recently the J. Paul Getty Museum held an exhibit of Outerbridge’s work, including some of the photographs offloaded by LAM.

The Outerbridge sale outraged Mark Chamberlain, owner of BC Space Gallery on Forest, and a photographer of note.

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“Right up to the day of the sale, Belinda Blacketer [former resident] and I were on the phone pleading with the auction house not to conduct the sale,” Chamberlain said.

Chamberlain, who was an original member of SLAM, which objected to the behind the scenes maneuvering in the 1996 merger, was equally outraged at the less-than-transparent sale of the California Impressionists by OCMA.

“There is legal and there is ethical,” Chamberlain said. “Transparency was the villain in the merger proposed in 1996 and it is a villain again.”

The 1996 agreement between the boards of the Laguna and Newport Harbor museums was not the first attempt at a merger.

During the tenure of Director Charles Demarais, an attempt was made, but scuttled by opponents including Janet and Henry Eggers and Bird.

The second attempt was kept under wraps by the trustees of the two museums, led by Laguna Beach residents Gil Levasuer at LAM and Chuck Martin at Newport, until a 26-0 vote was announced in 1996, setting off the insurrection by a group of museum members.

“They had voted to merge without any discussion with the museum members or the public,” said Felder, in a telephone interview Monday from Washington D.C.

Dissident museum members met with the late Naomi Vine, who had taken over as director and who supported the merger, to advise her that the merger had to be put to a vote of the membership, Felder said. Opponents of the merger requested that information about a NO vote be included on the ballot, but Vine refused and the merger was approved by the members.

Felder chaired Save Laguna Art Museum. Artist G. Ray Kerciu was president of the group, Chamberlain the vice president. Kathy Conway served as treasurer. The late Andy Wing, importer Art Fong and John Bing were among the members.

The group originally opposed the merger, but later acquiesced when advised that they didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. They hoped to negotiate better terms than the complete loss of the Barbara Steele endowment fund and the collection.

“They even wanted to sell the building and make it into a parking lot for Las Brisas,” Felder said.

Chamberlain quit SLAM when the group decided to negotiate.

“I said the hell with it,” Chamberlain said. “It was inevitable that SLAM would be asked to sign a confidentiality agreement and I was free to speak out.”

Chamberlain was slated to be the lone opponent of the merger to speak at a City Council meeting.

“But Henry [Eggers], [artist] Jacques Garnier, Dr. Gene Levin and [Gallimaufry founder] Steve Josephson, all members of SLAM, switched sides and joined me,” Chamberlain said.

Chamberlain lent his support to a separate and more bellicose group called Motivated Museum Members, organized by Laguna businessman and former newspaper publisher Vern Spitaleri. Spitaleri funded the services of attorney Jim McQueen. McQueen filed lawsuits on behalf of MMM, which Chamberlain said turned the tide against the merger, as first proposed.

“It is my understanding that the [LAM] charter is held by OCMA through an agreement that created an independent [re-chartered] museum in Laguna, the owner of the property on Cliff Drive,” Felder said.

However, a trust was to hold the art collections in common.

“LAM couldn’t say it had held the charter since 1918, but it didn’t have to pay storage,” Felder said. “That didn’t work out too well. Laguna had a ‘hellova’ time borrowing its own art for exhibits.

“There was a subsequent agreement that OCMA kept some of the good pieces, but the bulk belonged to Laguna.

“We are paying the price now for a vote to merge Laguna Art Museum and Newport Harbor museums that was later sort of unmerged.”


OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Write to Barbara Diamond, P.O. Box 248, Laguna Beach, 92652; call (949) 380-4321 or e-mail coastlinepilot@latimes.com


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