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ART : Laguna Museum, a Study in Staff Turnover

November 23, 1987|ALLAN JALON

When William Otton became the director of the Laguna Art Museum in 1981, it had two full-time staffers, an annual budget of $150,000 and a building on Cliff Drive with 9,000 square feet.

As Otton prepares to leave the museum this month to become president of the Art Institute of Southern California in Laguna Beach, he can look back on seven years of growth: The museum now has a 10-person staff, a budget of $750,000 and a new $1.6-million building of 19,000 square feet. That's the good news.

The flip side of that glowing picture is that as the museum enters the post-Otton era, it is essentially rebuilding its staff from scratch in the wake of seven major staff changes in the last three years.

Such high staff turnover threatens the museum's ability to sustain vital community contacts and its artistic effectiveness. .

Those changes came in posts that rank highest in importance to the museum after that of director--with some jobs changing hands twice in that time. Among them are the loss of two curators, two development directors who raised money for them, two museum registrars who handle details such as art insurance and a public relations person.

Two essential positions have recently been filled, those of curator and public relations director; but two others--development director and registrar--are empty, each post having been vacated twice in the last two years.

Otton, 48, explains the high turnover as natural at a time when a museum is growing and staffers' workloads increase more quickly than their salaries. But several former staffers say they left after run-ins with Otton on policy matters, or because of disagreements with Otton's management style. Tom Magill, president of the board of trustees, says he is aware of some complaints.

"It is clear to me that there were at least some staffers who have left over differences with Bill, temperamental differences," Magill said last week, although he quickly added that Otton left voluntarily. "The overall impression (on the 20-member board of trustees) was that there was an issue with his overall ability to retain the staff.

"I know of one staff person who complained specifically about his temper," Magill added. "She was here about six weeks. . . . I think Bill recognizes that one of his goals for the museum in the last couple of years has been to beef up the staff and stabilize the staff, and he recognizes that that is an unfulfilled agenda item."

Most former staffers would only speak off the record about Otton, fearing that detailed anecdotes would identify them. Also, even those who criticized Otton the manager praised him as someone passionate about the arts--and the museum.

"I left for professional and personal reasons," said Nancy Carlson, development director between March, 1985, and December, 1986. "It was difficult to know what the priorities were."

The case of former Laguna curator Robert McDonald raised some people's doubts about Otton's management abilities. By both men's accounts, Otton recruited McDonald away from his job as director of the Art Museum of Santa Cruz County in July, 1984, then fired him after 11 months, upon realizing he didn't have the money to pay McDonald's $25,000-a-year salary following a fund drive to expand the museum.

"Bob is a scholarly, respected person who has a great commitment to American art, and when he was hired, I had my fingers crossed that we could get a curatorial program together," Otton said. "It was premature."

McDonald, now director of the De Saisset Museum in Santa Clara, remains bewildered by the episode. "We were having good exhibitions and getting good reviews, and I thought we were really coming along," he said.

In spite of the turnover, Otton said, in an interview this week, "One of the most stable museums in Orange County has been the Laguna Art Museum. . . . It has had one director for seven years. It is important that it has had one vision. There have been people who had other visions, and then, when their visions are not in line with the existing visions, they left."

Meanwhile, Magill says he and other board members recognize turnover as a problem. "Stability is a priority for us right now, hiring and keeping people with extensive museum experience," the board president said. "We know this is something we have to do."

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