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Laguna Museum Director Quits for Academe

November 07, 1987|HERMAN WONG | Times Staff Writer

William Otton, Laguna Art Museum's director for nearly seven years, has resigned to take the top administrative post at the beleaguered Art Institute of Southern California in Laguna Beach.

Otton's departure from the museum had been a matter of speculation since 1985, when he announced his acceptance of a museum post in Illinois but then changed his mind when the Laguna Art Museum board gave him a better job package.

Both Otton and Laguna Art Museum board president Tom Magill Friday denied that Otton's resignation from his $40,000-a-year post was tied to major administrative or fiscal conflicts.

"He's told us he wants to return to academe--which, of course, is his professional roots," Magill said. (Otton was an associate professor of art at Corpus Christi State University in Texas before joining the Laguna museum in early 1981.)

Otton, who announced his resignation to the museum staff Friday morning, said: "I feel I've accomplished what I set out to do--that is, the facilities and program expansions, the greater regional stature here. It's time to move on, and in this case, back to the classroom."

A determination on when Otton will assume his Art Institute post is to be made early next week, when the board leaders of each institution meet separately. Otton would not divulge his new salary, only to say the new post will give him a "salary increase."

Herta Anderson, chairman of the Art Institute board, said Otton had been the only "finalist candidate" for the art college's director post, vacated a month ago when J. Thomas Reeve quit after six months in that job.

"I know about the problems, and (the job) will be a challenge," Otton said. "I certainly hope to bring the college a new stability and to help guide the long-range plans there for programs and facilities."

Otton guided the Laguna Art Museum through its transition from a modest, localized operation to an institution seeking a far larger role in regional arts. The museum's current annual budget is close to $800,000.

The museum's landmark beach-bluff home reopened last year after a $1.6-million reconstruction and expansion. An additional $600,000 has been raised for exhibition and other program expansions. The museum's gallery at the South Coast Plaza Mall in Costa Mesa is the only art satellite of its kind in Orange County.

At the same time, the museum has undergone a widely publicized turnover in the top exhibitions post.

In 1984, Otton announced he had eliminating the newly created post of chief curator. The post had been held 11 months by Robert McDonald, former director of the Art Museum of Santa Cruz County and a former chief curator of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art. Otton said the post was "prematurely created" in light of the museum's fiscal and program levels at that time.

Mike McGee became programs coordinator, with essentially the same duties, in January, 1986. He left this year to become curator at the new Modern Museum of Art in Santa Ana, and Michael McManus was appointed to replace him in September of this year--with the restored title of chief curator. Otton himself almost left in summer 1985, when he said he had accepted the director's post at the Rockford Art Museum, a regional institution near Chicago. But he said he turned down that job after the Laguna Art Museum board agreed to employ him on a contract basis for the first time.

The 1985 agreement didn't include a raise, Otton said, but was renewable annually through 1988 and offered him more fringe benefits.

The Art Institute, formerly known as the Laguna Beach School of Art, has undergone even more dramatic staff turnover.

J. Thomas Reeve, former dean of admissions at the College of Art and Design in Minneapolis, had succeeded Patricia Caldwell, whose two-year term that ended last November was marked by a teachers revolt. In 1986, six of the college's 30 instructors quit, citing low pay and overwork as the chief reasons.

The institute, founded in 1962 and located on Laguna Canyon Road, has an operating budget of about $700,000 and an enrollment of about 75 full-time students.

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