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Bowers Museum Grapples With Its Identity : President of the Santa Ana institution's board professes no hurry in seeking a director to replace the resigned Paul Piazza

February 04, 1990|CATHY CURTIS

SANTA ANA — Closed to the public for 13 months now, still preparing for a long-anticipated, $12-million renovation and expansion, the 54-year-old Bowers Museum has become the Greta Garbo of the Orange County museum world.

With a collection of 100,000 art and anthropological objects from the Americas, Africa and Oceania--most of them rarely seen by the public--the museum has always lacked a clear identity. But now that the galleries are dark, the museum seems even more obscure.

What is the staff doing over there these days? Former director Paul Piazza resigned seven months ago. Is anyone being tapped to replace him? Are renovation plans proceeding on schedule?

These and other questions about the Bowers' health and future were posed recently to Arthur V. Strock, president of the Bowers board. Supremely articulate and unflappably positive in thinking, Strock is an architect whose firm is based in Newport Beach.

Q. We understand that there has been no search for a new museum director since Piazza's resignation in May.

A. No, there is no search.

Q. Doesn't it bother you that it may look to the outside world that the Bowers lacks direction?

A. No, it does not bother me. We have developed over the past few years a very specific agenda of what we wish the Bowers to become, and we are pursuing that agenda. In terms of its collection and the things it shows, the Bowers will deal with the cultural arts of the Pacific Rim.

Q. Meanwhile, the board of governors has the museum under such control that you can take your sweet time in making a decision regarding a new director?

A. That's to (associate director) Josie De Falla's credit. She is doing an excellent job serving as the acting director for the museum. If she had not been able to take over the reins, we would have a sense of urgency that we do not feel.

Q. But she has no previous experience as the director of a cultural institution. (De Falla has been a museum research assistant at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University and the Museum of Systematic Biology at Stanford University. After being Piazza's administrative assistant at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, she followed him--in the same capacity--to the Bowers.)

A. A museum director('s job) has at least three basic components. One is managerial. Museums are businesses, among other things. They hire and fire people, they maintain physical plants, they correspond with the public and the press and and they try to be fiscally responsible.

There is (also) a scholarly component to being a museum director. What is the museum about? Can you communicate that to the public, to the arts community? . . .

The third component is entrepreneurial. Particularly in these days, museums need to be entrepreneurial to survive. A museum director needs to be able to speak to the chamber of commerce, to city departments, and to be able to participate--not necessarily manage, but participate--in the activities of fund raising.

I'm not sure that a person who fills all those roles perfectly exists on the face of the earth, and if that person does, they're probably talking to the National Gallery or to the Metropolitan in New York. They're not talking to us.

So we have decided to look beyond the notion of a museum director as a specific person, but to look at the staff of a museum in composite as being able to fill these roles.

We are extremely fortunate to have a strong curatorial staff in Armand Labbe and Paul Apodaca. One of the ironies of the Bowers Museum is that we are much better known in South America and Europe for our scholarly components and the quality of our staff than we are in Southern California.

We have in Josie an extremely competent manager who has the enthusiastic support of her employees. She has done a wonderful job in firming up relationships with her counterparts on the city staff, she has been extremely responsible in managing the nuts and bolts of the physical plant and the economics of running the museum. She's been a very pleasant surprise to everybody in that regard.

(She has) the ability to communicate to the (16-member, full-time) staff what the museum is doing, why it's doing it and why it's to the benefit of the museum and the staff. That has been done very directly and with great candor. It hasn't been done with subterfuge or superfluous stroking. . . .

Q. Yet , not searching nationally for a director may look as though the board wants to steer the ship by itself. Maybe a "star" museum director would get in the way.

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