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Newport Art Museum Plans Up in the Air


NEWPORT BEACH — Uncertainty about the economy may halt ambitious plans to build a new home for the Newport Harbor Art Museum, long seen as Orange County's next step toward cultural maturity and independence.

Museum trustees are set to meet in two weeks to discuss the $50-million proposal to construct and endow a new facility, but already some are saying privately that the board is not prepared to proceed with the project--at least for now.

The museum is financially healthy, but "the economy being what it is, the feeling (on the board) is that this is not the time to undertake such a major financial obligation," says trustee Jay M. Young. "We will assess things (again) when the economic climate improves."

Other board members agreed. "So much of Orange County's major money is related to real estate and development," both hard hit in the economic downturn, said trustee Susan Porter. "With all the belt tightening," donors "may put (money) in their pockets before they give to a charitable institution."

Museum director Michael Botwinick's only comment was terse: "The decision about the building has not been officially made."

But in an interview last month, he noted that a prolonged recession would keep the museum "in a deep freeze" because "you can't do a major capital campaign without capital. There's no question in my mind (the recession) will affect the timing of our campaign."

The plan for a new museum--to be built on 10.5 acres along Coast Highway, with more than double the Newport Harbor's current exhibition space--met with great fanfare four years ago but has been losing momentum since then. The museum's building committee hasn't even met since the fall, according to member David Steinmetz.

The 30-year-old museum--currently tucked into a nondescript, 23,000-square-foot building in Fashion Island--exhibits art from the post-World War II period and collects works by contemporary California artists.

Praised for the scholarship and flair of its exhibitions--particularly under the leadership of former chief curator Paul Schimmel, who left in the spring of 1990--the Newport Harbor is viewed by critics nationally as one of Southern California's major contemporary art museums. In Orange County, the planned expansion has been seen as the visual arts equivalent of the Performing Arts Center.

The museum posted gains in earned and contributed income during the past fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. Earned income--including bookstore and cafe revenues, bank interest and fees paid by other institutions for Newport Harbor exhibits--was $553,683, up $136,977 from the previous year. Contributed income--from membership dues, contributions, grants, fund-raising events and the "annual fund" of trustee gifts--was $1,357,746, an increase of $115,685. The museum's current budget is $2 million, unchanged from 1991.

But its facility is too small to allow the museum to show both its permanent collection and temporary exhibitions at the same time, and for years the idea of a spacious, architecturally distinctive new building has been a gleam in trustees' eyes.

The Irvine Co.--whose chairman, Donald L. Bren, is the museum's most powerful board member--promised in 1988 to donate land for a new building if $10 million in construction costs could be raised in cash. That December, the museum announced that the $10-million mark had been passed, but only when pledges also were counted.

And then fund raising apparently stalled--no further progress in the capital campaign ever has been reported. Meanwhile, estimated construction costs grew from $20 million to nearly $30 million as the design process evolved.

The Irvine Co. still retains title to the land. Botwinick says that "no matter what happens, the commitment from the Irvine Co. remains," that the land is "ours for the asking." An Irvine Co. official concurred Thursday, saying the land is "a gift that stands on a long-term commitment to the museum for its expansion."

Bren had no comment Thursday when asked if he thinks plans for the museum should proceed or be postponed.

The trustees had taken a major step toward realization of their dream in November, 1987, when they hired renowned Genovese architect Renzo Piano after an international search. Piano's museum designs range from the flashy, once-controversial Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris to the understated Menil Collection in Houston.

Preliminary drawings and a model of Piano's innovative, barrel-vaulted design were unveiled in August, 1989. The one-story, 87,000-square-foot building was to be nestled into the hillside--Piano's response to strict height limitations required by the city. Visitors were to enter from the roof and glide down on an escalator.

A pathway running through the center of the building was to connect "fingers" housing the various departments of the museum. Abundant natural light and views of the surrounding gardens were intended to reinforce the closeness between Southern Californians and their natural environment.

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