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Sam Hall Kaplan

A 'New' Art Museum for Laguna, Too

November 29, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan | Kaplan also appears in The Times' Real Estate section. and

With all the gala openings of art museums in Los Angeles, it seemed the time to take a break and drive down the coast to Laguna Beach. The idyllic, sun-baked ocean-front enclave is always a pleasure to visit, especially after the summer crowds have gone.

Laguna also had a new attraction: What else but an art museum?

Sitting on a small site at the southwest corner of Cliff Drive and the Coast Highway, it's the latest expansion and retrofitting of a facility that for more than half a century has served the beach town's enduring interest in art.

The "new" museum, doubling in size the "old" museum (to about 20,000 square feet), is marked by a new facade of pink stucco walls and aluminum pipe and glass greenhouse construction. The greenhouse framing the entry allows an inviting glimpse of the interior.

Not as inviting is the almost anonymous doorway. So much for a grand entry.

Helping somewhat to distinguish the modestly detailed exterior from, say, an office building is a frail eucalyptus tree at the corner and an intriguing Michael Davis sculpture emerging out of the east wall.

The blandness of the building exterior should be further eased when the bougainvillea on an upper level planting area grows a little more to drape red blossoms over the pink north wall, and when a tiled bench by artist Marlo Bartels is installed outside.

It will be Bartels' second commission for the museum, which is attempting with some imagination to integrate sculpture pieces into the structure, and not just set them out in viewing spaces. Bartels' tiled artwork, which incorporates the drinking fountain on the wall between the lower-level restrooms, makes a marvelous, colorful use of what normally would have been dead interior space.

Also lending verve to the interior is Davis' sculpture, which seems to break through the wall at the landing of a narrow, forced stairway between the first and second levels. The northwest stairwell should get a similar burst of life when a Laddie John Dill sculpture is installed there.

The museum needs it, for the expansion designed by Paul Barnard of the architectural firm of WZMH Group has created some awkward and not particularly flexible interior spaces to go with the uninspiring exterior.

Most unfortunate is the dead-ending of the Tierney Gallery on the east side of the second level, while the more accessible north side is devoted to administrative space. Wasted on desks there is the museum's best light--that if filtered properly could have been used for the display of art. The staff offices also have the best views.

Still, the design succeeded in overcoming some tough problems. These included squeezing the most space possible onto a small site sitting on an underground stream, which is elbowed by an adjacent restaurant and very busy highway. Adding to the problems was the original building. Designed by Myron Hunt and built in 1929 and enlarged in 1951, it was in desperate need of retrofitting, if only to get some decent lighting.

And while the design may not glitter, it nevertheless doubled the amount of exhibition space, vital for an expanding permanent collection and to accommodate special exhibits. It also provides for an excellent museum shop, which when I was there was stocked with attractive and reasonably priced arts and crafts items.

Certainly the expansion is cause for celebration, enhancing the museum's stature as the oldest cultural institution in Orange County (it was founded in 1918) and Laguna's reputation as a cultural oasis.

Long a strollers' paradise, Laguna was settled at the turn of the century as an artist's colony, spawning over the years numerous symbiotic private galleries, and attracting waves of aspiring and a few accomplished artists.

Not coincidentally the colony in turn spawned the Pageant of the Masters, in which costumed locals freeze against painted backdrop in the poses of famous works of art. The stage presentation is coordinated with an annual art show. The hope was that the event would attract tourists and possibly art patrons. It has done that and more, subsequently becoming one of the more popular annual events in Southern California, at times overwhelming the town and with its kitsch embarrassing a few of the area's more serious artists.

The museum should help to overcome that feeling of embarrassment.

In its first month of operation, the new museum drew 11,000, more than double past monthly averages. (The museum is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for seniors, students and children. For more information, call (714) 662-3366.)

And of course for a different display of art, especially at sundown, a few steps from the museum there are the bluffs of Heisler Park, the sprawling beach below, and the ocean beyond.

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