Shortly after Michael McManus took over as chief curator of the Laguna Art Museum last fall, he began hearing about a valuable cache of 20th-Century art owned by the Newport-Mesa Unified School District and displayed in the district's four high school libraries.
As unlikely as that seemed, McManus took a look and found a collection of preponderantly museum-quality works that reflect the evolution of Southern California art from plein-air to minimalist paintings.
He also discovered that there was no more appropriate place for the Ruth Stoever Fleming Collection of Southern California Art, named for the Newport Harbor High School librarian who started the exhibit that grew into one of the most prestigious juried art shows on the West Coast between 1946 and 1966.
"The thing that fascinates me," McManus said, "is that an American high school could be a cultural force: The idea that a high school would be the institution that would pull together a collection that would have the major Edgar Payne (work) from the 1920s, the Bob Irwin abstract Expressionist canvas from the late 1950s, the fine Frederick Hammersley abstract classicist work in 1963 and the Edie Danieli from the Op era."
Just as fascinating to McManus was the caliber of professionals enlisted to judge the contest each year. The jury for the 1966 exhibit, he said, was typical: William Wilson, the most prominent art critic on the West Coast; Tony Delap, geometric abstract artist, and Maurice Tuchman, senior curator of 20th-Century art at the Los Angeles County Art Museum.
Begun as a way to increase students' exposure to the world of art, the annual Newport Harbor Art Exhibit competition invited Southland painters to submit their best oils or watercolors. Each year, several hundred works would be submitted while a professional jury composed of some of the biggest names in Southern California art would chose only 60 or 70 for showing in the high school gymnasium.
At the end of the weeklong exhibition, the school district would purchase the winning oil and watercolor, adding them to an art collection begun in the mid-'30s when graduating seniors would buy a painting as their senior class gift to the school.
By the time the annual art exhibit ended in 1966, the school district had amassed an impressive 56-piece collection, one that reflects the evolution of styles in Southern California art from the plein-air paintings of the 1920s to the minimalist paintings of the mid-'60s.
After the final exhibit in 1966, the collection had been dispersed among the district's four high schools: Newport Harbor, Corona del Mar, Costa Mesa and Estancia.
But over the years, supervision of the paintings became lax. Many wound up in district offices. Some were damaged. And others were unaccounted for until 1984, when Newport Harbor High School librarian John McGinnis began an inventory of the collection that led to its restoration.
"They got traded like baseball cards," McGinnis said. "Those that were popular were clung to by certain people, and the others they'd put in some closet or behind a filing cabinet. That's what made them difficult to find."
McGinnis found one painting, a 1953 Jack Zajac oil portrait titled "Papaya Vendor," on top of an air-conditioning duct behind a filing cabinet. ("It's a beautiful painting, but they thought it was depressing," he said.) A Phil Dyke painting, "Sunset and Sails," was found in a closet: Face up. With papers stacked on top. ("Fortunately, it's painted on Masonite rather than canvas and could withstand the weight," McGinnis said.)
But the worst example of the poor state the collection had fallen into is Thomas Hunt's "Snow Scene." The 28-by-30-inch oil painting had been found a year before in the bushes outside a classroom window. "It looked like it was hit with a baseball or something," McGinnis said. "It was canvas and it was in terrible condition, badly cracked."
McManus had seen a portion of the collection years ago, but after hearing that the collection had been restored he was curious to see if its quality was as good as was claimed. He found out in May when McGinnis took him on a tour of the four high school libraries.
"That was it. I was convinced," McManus said. "There is some unevenness in the selection, frankly, but going through the highlights of the collection, there is no question it has a preponderence of museum-quality paintings."
The result of McManus' tour is that today, the Ruth Stoever Fleming Collection of Southern California Art begins a three-month exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum. The exhibition, which runs though Nov. 6, represents the first museum showing of the collection.
But it's just the latest twist in a story that is rich in the cultural and social history of Newport Beach.