Betty Turnbull, longtime resident of Newport Beach, passed away Wednesday, October 20, 2010. Betty was an important influence in the visual arts of California as the first curator of exhibitions for the Newport Harbor Art Museum (now the Orange County Museum of Art) and as a partner in the TLK Gallery in Costa Mesa.
Born Betty Jean Hainey into a vaudeville family in 1924, Betty started in show business performing on stage with the Olsen & Johnson comedy team at age four; in the years 1935-43 she appeared in numerous films with stars such as Shirley Temple and Roy Rogers and on radio theatre programs. During World War II she and Glenn Turnbull married, and while raising their two children Betty studied art, became a painter, and immersed herself in art history and the offerings of museums and galleries in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other cities.
In the 1960s, having moved with her family to Newport Beach, she drew on her visual-art sensibility and theatrical staging savvy to create visually and aesthetically noteworthy exhibitions for the Newport Harbor Art Museum (now OCMA). An artist herself, she was able to establish a close rapport and in many cases lifelong friendships with the contemporary artists whose work she chose to exhibit. Her legacy as a guiding force during the museum’s growth and transition from its original small space at the Balboa Pavilion to its larger West Balboa Boulevard quarters in 1973 and then to its current location in Newport Center in 1977 is evident in the institution’s superior programming today.
Significant among the forty or more exhibitions Betty organized between 1968 and 1981 were “The Movie Show” (1969); exhibitions of Native American art (1968, 1971); mini-blockbuster shows of work by Edward Hopper (1973) and Mary Cassatt (1974); the cutting-edge installation shows “Sounds” (1975) and “Rooms” (1978); an early tribute to L.A.’s infamous Ferus Gallery in “The Last Time I Saw Ferus” (1975); major shows focusing on Orange County artists (1971, 1976, 1979, etc.); and in-depth retrospectives of work by Bay Area figurative painter David Park (1977) and Los Angeles artists George Herms, Vija Celmins (both 1979) and Patrick Hogan (1980). The catalogues she wrote and produced for the exhibitions placed the artists’ works in their art-historical context.
Betty also served as acting director of the museum from 1972-73. With partners Phyllis Lutjeans and Victoria Kogan, she operated the TLK Gallery, which featured museum-quality contemporary art, from 1982 to 1985.
Betty is survived by her daughter Glenda Winterbotham; son Mark Turnbull; grandchildren Calvin, Mimi, and Rory Turnbull and Ian Winterbotham (Bree); and great-granddaughter Shayla Winterbotham. Memorial services are pending.