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1987 ARTS IN REVIEW : For Museums, a Year of 'Important Changes' : Staff Shuffles and Expansion Marked Period of Transition

December 29, 1987|ALLAN JALON | Times Staff Writer

1987 was a year of transitions for the principal museums of Orange County:

--The Laguna Art Museum lost its director, William Otton, and is working at filling that and other key positions. 1987 was the first full calendar year of the museum's newly expanded and redesigned building.

--The Newport Harbor Art Museum took major steps toward building its new home, including hiring Italian architect Renzo Piano to design it.

--The Bowers Museum acquired a new director, Paul Piazza, and several other new staff members. This was also the year when the museum became institutionally severed from the city of Santa Ana, becoming its own nonprofit corporation.

Perhaps Tom Magill, chairman of the board at the Laguna Art Museum, summed the year up best when he said that, in the county's art world, "it has been a time of important changes for everybody."

The expansion of the Laguna museum, completed in September, 1986, increased the size of the building from 9,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet. But it also brought increased expenses.

"I couldn't quantify the difference between running the old space and this new one without a thorough budget analysis that I haven't done," Magill said. "But double the size of your light bills and heating bills and see what happens."

Otton, who was museum director during the expansion, announced his departure in November. Otton, who became director in 1981, is leaving to become president of the Art Institute of Southern California.

In 1986, the museum had planned to close its branch at the South Coast Plaza mall this year because of high operating costs. But a reassessment led to the conclusion that it should remain open, Magill said. "We decided that we could handle the costs--about $50,000 to $60,000 a year--and we think it is a very worthwhile enterprise."

Plans for a new home for the Newport Harbor Art Museum made considerable progress in 1987. The museum's fund-raising consultant, the New York-based Oram Group Inc., concluded that the museum can raise $50 million for the project--$10 million for the land, $20 million for the building and a $20-million endowment.

If all goes as planned, the museum will rise by 1992 on a site near the intersection of MacArthur Boulevard and East Coast Highway.

The Irvine Co. has estimated the cost of its 10 1/2-acre land parcel in Corona del Mar at $20 million but this year, as a $10-million challenge land grant, offered the site if the museum can come up with the other $10 million.

In the glamorous import department, the museum hired one of the world's best-known architects to build its new home. Piano is known for co-designing the Georges Pompidou cultural center in Paris.

During the year, the museum mounted five major exhibits, among them one of the largest ever staged anywhere on contemporary British sculpture.

The museum also received a $300,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, contingent on the museum's success at raising $900,000 more in the next three years. The grant, which National Endowment of the Arts officials said is "unusually large," stemmed partly from the National Endowment of the Arts' interest in the "risk-taking spirit" at the Newport and some of Southern California's other smaller museums.

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The whole institutional character of the Bowers Museum changed substantially this year. On April 20, officials with the nonprofit Bowers Museum Corp. signed a contract with Santa Ana officials that established the museum's autonomy from city governance.

In the next 20 years, Piazza said, private funding will gradually replace the aid the museum gets from the city. The 1987-88 budget is $1.7 million, of which $1.1 million will come from the city. The rest will come from donations and sales in the gift shop.

A $12-million expansion of the museum, scheduled to begin in late 1988 or early 1989, will be a city-paid project.

Piazza said: "This was the year we began an important phase in the evolution of this museum."

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