“Outraged" is as good a word as any to describe how the Laguna Beach art community feels upon learning of the sale of 18 California Impressionist works originally donated to the Laguna Art Museum many years ago and lost in a failed merger attempt with what is now the Orange County Museum of Art.
The paintings sold by OCMA to an unnamed Laguna Beach collector include works by William Wendt and others who were instrumental in the founding of Laguna Beach as a bona fide art colony "” one of the only cities anywhere that can claim that distinction.
The Laguna Art Museum itself was the child of Wendt and his cronies, who set up their plein air paintings in a board-and-batten building on Coast Highway "” when it was a dirt road "” and waited for passersby to come along. The building also served as Town Hall and is still in existence today.
The luminous exhibition of Wendt paintings that filled Laguna Art Museum last year is a testament to the brilliance of this painter, and underpins the plein air tradition of painting that is still very strong. It’s that sense of history and the importance of keeping it alive that drives a lot of Laguna Beach. One can only wonder what was going through the minds of the Laguna Art Museum board back in 1995 when they voted to merge with the Newport Harbor Museum and essentially disband the historic Laguna Art Museum. Fortunately, others stepped in to stop the eradication of the Laguna Art Museum, but apparently at a price: 18 paintings that were part of the heritage of the museum.
Now those pieces may be heading back to Laguna in private hands. Some of them, we understand, are now on exhibit in Reno, and it’s possible of course, that they are already bound for other ports and other owners.
It’s agonizing to think of these works being so near and yet so far.
We hope the Laguna collector who snapped up these treasures at a fire-sale price will seriously consider returning them, either by donation or through a sale. That would, indeed, make the collector a hero in the eyes of his or her hometown.
Hopefully, Laguna Art Museum officials can make some overtures to soften what has become a painful rift in the art-loving community "” and bring these works back where they belong.