There is an island of culture behind the trees and benches where mothers watch their children play in Furman Park. It is the Downey Museum of Art, whose goal for the past 32 years has been to exhibit quality art without admission charge for Southeast-area residents who cannot, or will not, venture into the large museums of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
"We're here as an educational institution, to teach about art, to give (area residents) a place to come to appreciate art," Executive Director Scott Ward said. "It's an important resource to this area to have free access to high-quality art."
Ward estimates that about 15,000 people a year pass through the modest building to view its exhibits. Part of Ward's mission is to attract art enthusiasts with quality displays. The other part is to expose area residents to the world of painting, sculpture, weavings and other art forms.
"Some of the people who come to the museum had no intention of coming to view art," Ward said. "They came (to the park) for a birthday party or to jog around."
The museum was founded in 1957 by a group of residents called the Downey Art Assn. Developer Willard Woodrow donated the facility to the city for the museum. His wife, Alice, was the museum's founding director.
"In that time there was an extraordinary amount of interest and civic ambition to raise the lot of the locals, in a sense," Ward said.
City officials still view the museum as an important part of the municipal landscape. The city pays for maintenance of the building and for its utilities--about $35,000 a year, Ward said.
"It adds a dimension that's necessary to the city of Downey," Councilman Robert G. Cormack said. "And it's not at a great cost to the taxpayers."
The museum is a nonprofit organization that runs on an annual budget of about $100,000, which includes the salaries of its four part-time employees, Ward said. In addition to the support from Downey, the museum receives several grants and money and services from about 300 individual and corporate members, he said.
The Downey Museum of Art concentrates on showing art produced in this century by professional California artists. The museum does not have the clout to attract expensive masterpieces nor the protective facilities to ensure their safety, Ward said.
In a north-south group exhibit, the museum is now showing the works of five artists from Northern California and five artists from Southern California. The exhibit, which runs through Nov. 5, includes pieces by Cheryl Calleri of Santa Cruz, Gail Chase-Bien of Napa, Stan Dann of Oakland, Shari Lamanet of San Francisco, Barbara Milman of Davis, Beth Bachenheimer and Hilary Baker of Los Angeles, Mitchell Friedman of Sherman Oaks, Penelope Jones of Highland Park and Gary Singer of Riverside. The museum is open from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
In most exhibits, the art is either loaned by the artist or by a collector. Many of the works are for sale.
"It's not hard to pull together shows because there are lots and lots of artists in the world who want to show," Ward said.
Once a year, the museum space is reserved for the Downey Art League, which sponsors an exhibit of works produced exclusively by local artists.
Schoolchildren frequently tour the museum, which also offers art classes during the summer.
Now and then, Ward displays portions of the museum's modest 400-piece collection. About half of the collection is composed of works by Boris Deutsch, a Los Angeles painter and muralist who died in 1978. Deutsch's works were displayed last May and June along with the works of other artists who depicted Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s.
Ward said he does not know the value of the museum's collection, but it will be evaluated in coming months.
The art displayed by the museum has, in past years, produced an uproar within the largely conservative city. Cormack remembers an exhibit several years ago which contained sculptures of genitals. Community members and city officials complained. The offending items were moved to a back room and a sign was posted warning patrons that they might be offended by looking at them.
"When you see just the organ on a pedestal or something, I think that's carrying things a little far," Cormack said. "But I think they've had some real thought-provoking art in the last few years."
Ward, a photographer who became the museum's executive director two years ago, said he is mindful of the family nature of the community when he plans a show. But that does not prevent the display of a legitimate piece of art that may contain nudity.
Ward said he plans to produce more shows that reflect the changing demographics of the Southeast area.
Last December, the museum showed the art of about 25 Soviet emigres, many of whom were Armenian. The Southeast's Armenian community is concentrated in Montebello.
A "Cambodians in America" show is scheduled for late 1990. And Ward says he plans to exhibit the work of artists from Guadalajara, Mexico, the following year in recognition of this area's large Latino population.
"We try to reach out to a broad audience," Ward said. "We're trying to respond to the region and its changing nature."