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Newport Art Museum's $50-Million Next Wave

January 24, 1988|WILLIAM WILSON

It's a real California story. The Beach Boys ought to record it. Call it "How the Newport Harbor Art Museum Keeps Catching the Wave." This time they plan to do it by unfurling a $50-million fund-raiser to build an idyllic new museum by designer-label architect Renzo Piano on a prime 10-acre, $10.5-million plot donated by the Irvine Co. It will be their fourth big wave and a nice way to mark their 25th anniversary.

In 1962, the museum started out as a little deuce kunsthalle zipping around doing hip '60s shows. Their garage was the old Balboa Island pavilion where decades of teens in search of decadence had danced to clarinet and saxophone. Summer romance under paper moons. What a great spot for art shows. They held art history classes in the yacht club. They were first with Ed Ruscha and Joe Goode. They showed Photorealism before the artists could copy the snapshots right and it was still fun, fun, fun.

The pavilion had good vibrations, but it was small and so the museum went on a surfin' safari in the warmth of the sun. They found this old printing plant right on the beach nestled between hot dog stands and surfer girls and there the sages decreed what was possibly the world's funkiest art museum (clean though). Tom Garver came down from San Francisco to direct and caught the wave. He even did a show of academic salon art a decade before revivalism was fashionable.

By then it was the '70s, and clean, cool, polite, brainy Minimalism was in. The boardwalk was no place for white canvases with one stripe. Suppose somebody squirted mustard on them? Squirt mustard on an Abstract Expressionist and you might make it better, but mustard stains on Minimalism are like wine spilled on a white linen suit. It don't look right.

There were those who regretted it, but the museum had to get off the beach before daddy took the T-Bird away. In 1977, they finished their first brand-spanking new, very own museum by local architects Langdon and Wilson. Nestled in Newport Center surrounded by typical Orange County corporate-pastoral high-rises and shopping malls, NHAM entered its BMW-Yuppie phase. The building is bland, but it has all the proper appurtenances from cafe to bookstore, not to mention 10,000 feet of exhibition space and a nice, small permanent collection.

Like any museum, NHAM has had an identity crisis and internal strain, but the boxy building with the Tony DeLap sculpture out front has been good to it. Director Kevin Consey started out as a 27-year-old Wunderkind exec running a San Antonio museum recycled from a brewery. Newport's leading curator, Paul Schimmel, is an energetic young guy widely considered among the smarter curatorial talents.

In the 11 years NHAM has been in Newport Center, its temporary exhibitions have floundered into excessively superficial modishness, but they have never ceased to surprise with the thoughtfully offbeat or unexpected coups like fine exhibitions of Edward Hopper and Edvard Munch.

Schimmel leans sympathetically to art ignored or undervalued in the rush of fashion and has done important work in bringing back the virtues of scorned movements like the Abstract Expressionist second generation or artists such as David Park and John Graham.

Years back, the museum burned its fingers on an exhibition by a group of Bay Area performance artists inclined to run afoul of the guardians of the public weal by sending their feces through the mail or taking to the streets protesting social injustice. Since then, NHAM has not been inclined to the scarier edges of the avant-garde, but then neither has the avant-garde. All the same, one notes that this year's schedule includes a survey of the now-reconstructed renegade performance artist Chris Burden along with enticing subjects like the randomness-and-chance artist Barry Le Va plus shows about New York figurative expressionism in the '50s and L.A. Pop in the '60s.

But what about the new museum?

Consey, hefty, bearded and now an old duffer of 36, explained it all in his office while drinking a Diet Coke.

"We are trying to stay inside the curl of the wave of our success," he said making a surfing gesture with his flat hand.

He described the museum's disappointment when a plan to move to a nearby location in Newport Center went belly-up because the proposal was part of a general local master plan that was turned down by Orange County voters. Artniks perked up when the Irvine Co. offered a 10-acre $10.5-million gift of land bordered by busy Pacific Coast Highway and MacArthur Boulevard. They asked an outfit that researches fund-raising campaigns to find out if they had a fighting chance of raising $50 million to do the job and the wise men said yes.

"We plan to go public with the capital campaign around April," Consey said. "First we want to get firm commitments from our board for $10 million. Then with the value of the property we'll have $20 million in hand to prove we are serious."

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