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La Jolla's Museum Gets Laurels, San Diego's Barbs

September 01, 1988|HILLIARD HARPER

Call it "A Tale of Two Museums." The author is the California Arts Council, which last week issued reports roundly praising the programs of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art while sounding "concerns" over those of the San Diego Museum of Art.

In its reports, the arts council lauded the La Jolla museum's "aesthetic direction" and awarded it the highest ranking on a scale of 1 to 4, along with a $95,684 grant, the maximum amount possible for an institution its size.

The council sternly scored the San Diego Museum of Art, however for the "uneven" quality of its exhibitions and other shortcomings and awarded it a 3- grade. Had the museum scored even half a point lower, it would not have been eligible for any grant money. As it was, the San Diego museum received the minimum--$14,850--for institutions with its operating budget.

The council's "comments" were compiled from reports by panels of museum professionals. The panels are part of a rigorous, time-consuming evaluation process used by the Arts Council to determine amounts of state funds to be distributed to qualified institutions.

The committees, called peer panels, are groups of arts professionals who evaluate one another's organizations. Although not a perfect system, it is "far ahead of whatever comes second," said Edward Able, executive director of the American Assn. of Museums in Washington.

The peer review process also gives institutions a system for "evaluating themselves and identifying areas on which they need to focus," Able said.

The Arts Council was impressed with the "aesthetic direction" La Jolla is taking and congratulated the museum as one of five California institutions to receive a National Endowment for the Arts Challenge Grant this year. The panel also praised the museum for its efforts to support artists, reach a new audience through its downtown gallery and diversify its board of directors ethnically.

"The panel felt that this was the best grant written in this category and appreciated the honesty of the director's statement," according to the council report. "They organized 70% of their own shows, which is remarkable given their small staff."

A second report noted that, although the museum's staff is small, it is "well managed and is qualified." The panel commended the museum's board of trustees for its support of the museum's "far-reaching mission" and praised the museum's "strong schools outreach program."

The San Diego Museum of Art was praised as financially sound, but the panel expressed several program and administration concerns.

"They have had tremendous staff turnover during the past few years," the report says. "In spite of good management personnel and an enthusiastic board, they have not risen as a leader in their area, much less the region or the state."

Although praising the San Diego museum's attempts to address multicultural issues, the council felt the museum remained conservative. Its strongest criticism was reserved for the museum's collection and its exhibition policy.

"They take many prepackaged exhibits and do not make good use of their education director. . . . " the report says. "Their artistic director's statement seems to lack ambition and vision, which is reflected in their collection and the quality of the exhibitions. The permanent exhibit is uneven in quality--all the right names, but the pieces are not of high quality. Many of their shows are traveling exhibits, which indicates a lack of proper use of curatorial staff."

The council noted that the upcoming exhibit of the museum's recently acquired collection of Toulouse Lautrec prints (they go on display Oct. 15) but wondered why the museum generates so few of its own exhibits, given that it has six full-time staff members assigned to that task.

The panel questioned the validity of proposed exhibits on Cecil Beaton, known chiefly for his stage and film costumes, and local Chinese artist Li Huai.

"The Li exhibit is the first one-person show mounted by the museum since Dr. Seuss," the report says, referring to an exhibit at the museum two years ago. "But the panel was not convinced of its importance as an outreach activity."

Steven Brezzo, the museum's director, said he was "disappointed and more than a bit concerned" with the comments.

"They represent a pretty narrow viewpoint of the role of the institution," he said Tuesday. "The bent is definitely more toward an experimental and avant-garde approach than what we take."

Brezzo suggested that the council is holding the San Diego museum up to standards for contemporary art collections and exhibits when, in fact, its mandate is for "more than 5,000 years of art."

He said he feels the council's analysis of the quality of exhibits is inappropriate and "convoluted," adding that, if the pieces in the collection were not of high quality, other museums would not be "lining up to borrow them."

As for the staff turnover, Brezzo said: "Our salary levels are low and workloads are high. We're pretty proud of the staff that have gone on to . . . extraordinary, significant positions. I don't think (turnover) has been any higher than in previous years. The people we hire, when successful, are in great demand and hired away from us. Obviously we'd like to keep the people we have, but we can't always do it."

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