After six years in obscurity, a noted art collection is going back on view at Newport Harbor High School.
The collection will debut later this month in the school’s library in Robins-Loats Hall, which has spent several years in recon- struction. It was closed for retrofitting because of concerns about seismic safety.
Past school staff, teachers and alumni were on hand Thursday to assist in the collection’s reinstallation and reminisce about its history.
George James, a graduate of the school and artist who returned to teach social studies, has a special connection to the collection: It features one of his paintings.
“That was the biggest feather in my cap, because I grew up with this show, being inspired by it,” James said.
During the library construction project, much of the Ruth Stoever Fleming Collection of Southern California Art spent the past six years in storage.
The collection was named for a librarian at the school who started what became one of the West Coast’s most prestigious juried art shows during the mid-20th century.
Twenty-one paintings are now being installed on the library’s walls. The earliest nine paintings were given annually to the school by its senior class, beginning in 1935; Stoever assisted the students with their acquisitions.
When the gifting practice fell out of favor, Stoever decided to stage the art shows. From 1946 to 1966, the school purchased each of the annual show’s winning oil and watercolor paintings and added them to the school district’s collection.
At the height of the show’s fame, the school would receive 700 submissions competing for 70 spots in the show. Different critics would be invited to the show to serve as judges each year, so the school’s collection expanded far beyond plein air and into abstract Expressionism and more; in the show’s last year, the critics selected a pop art watercolor.
When the annual show came to a close, those who worked on it went on to form the Newport Beach Arts Commission, former Newport Harbor librarian John McGinnis said.
In the mid-1980s, McGinnis, James and their colleagues reassembled the collection. They scoured school sites to find them in storage closets, filing cabinets and administration offices throughout the district, rather than on display for the students.
The group raised $40,000 to stage a landmark one-week exhibition of the collected works, produce a limited-edition book and restore all of the paintings.
Many paintings had yellowed, with 50-year-old varnish to contend with. One of the most valuable paintings, by Thomas Hunt, was hanging outside James’ former classroom. Over the years, a student had thrown an orange at it; a circular area of cracks and other damage were visible.
The newest piece in the show was a 1984 painting by famed artist Millard Sheets depicting horses by the sea in Carmel. The senior class gift was a throwback to the 1930s tradition.
The painting retailed for $10,000; the Newport Harbor senior class had $2,000. But when Sheets heard that the students wished to buy his painting for their school, he happily sold it to them for 80% off.
The oldest piece in the collection, an Edgar Payne from 1923, won honorable mention in that year’s Paris Salon, one of the preeminent exhibitions in the world. It was purchased and donated by the Newport Harbor Class of 1945.
During the week in 1985 that the paintings were all on view together, the district’s students traveled to Newport Harbor by bus, and were led through the collection by docents from the Laguna Art Museum and the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum.
After the tour, each school’s students created their own mural. The mural collection hung in the hallways of Newport Harbor for the next month.
The school board drafted a new policy in 1985 that required the collection to hang in school libraries.
Twelve paintings were sent to each of the district’s other three high schools: Corona del Mar, Estancia and Costa Mesa.
There are now 21 at Newport Harbor, McGinnis said: the nine senior class gifts and 12 of the paintings acquired during the art show years.
The school’s ceramics teacher created a plaque from ceramic tiles to commemorate the collection in the 1980s; it also will be reinstalled in the library, along with the paintings.
“It just feels wonderful to know that they were so well restored,” McGinnis said, adding that he hoped the paintings would help students to appreciate their school’s history.
1930: Newport Harbor High School opens
1935: First senior class painting is given to the school
1946 to 1966: Annual Stoever art shows held
1984 to 1985: The paintings are rediscovered, restored and displayed
2003: Robins-Loats Hall closed due to seismic safety concerns
2009: Building reopens following retrofit; paintings are reinstalled