"We are here to serve a public and to bring the contemporary art dialogue into this community and make it available, accessible and understandable. . . . Right now, we are an esoteric small institution on a side street in Fashion Island. That's a physical reality and, unfortunately, a social reality."
So eager is the museum to focus on its local outreach that Guenther--who is renting in Newport Beach--says he promised the board he wouldn't live in Los Angeles. "This is where the museum is," he explains. "How can I create a program for this place if I don't know this place? It's like cities that hire you and require you to live there."
Guenther says he has worked to create a balance of "accessible" and more challenging exhibition programs in Chicago and at the Seattle Art Museum, his previous curatorial post--a practice he intends to continue at Newport Harbor.
On Feb. 2, the museum will open a retrospective of the work of major American sculptor Jackie Winsor, organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum, and "New California Artist XX: Sarah Seager," an exhibit--organized by assistant curator Marilu Knode--of the young Pasadena artist's recent paintings on paper, which incorporate a private vocabulary of words and symbols applied with press-on letters.
Five days later, Guenther's first Newport Harbor exhibit makes its debut: The first solo U.S. museum exhibit of young Argentine artist Guillermo Kuitca, who is said to imbue familiar objects--household furnishings, city plans, road maps--with a theatrical sense of melancholy and loss.
"I wanted him here," Guenther says, "because for (viewers) for whom Sarah Seager would be impossible and Jackie Winsor would be very difficult, the fact that Kuitca makes paintings on canvas will give them a little ease . . . maybe delays them shutting the door on their mind a little bit.
"(Viewers) see things within Kuitca's world which are recognizable but strange, familiar and yet unknown at the same time. . . . Ideally, after that experience they go on to Jackie Winsor and begin to see someone who has reduced her (options) to a series of geometric shapes and who is really concerned with the labor of making something, and about its surface and how it comes into being . . . and then you go to Sarah Seager . . . who will (pursue) the most esoteric, almost mathematical kind of permutation of an idea.
"My ideal is to construct a program that not only does that in each exhibition, but over time will take the myriad of new visitors this institution got at (last year's exhibit, 'Edward Hopper: Selections from the Permanent Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art') and give them something else that's perhaps more central to the institution's goals and ideas.
"You don't overcome 100 years of distancing (between popular taste and art) in one exhibition, with one wall label. But over the course of an association of five years, 10 years, the 2 1/2 visits that the membership will make individually every year begin to noodle away at it. . . ."
Although some observers in Seattle have labeled Guenther a curator primarily interested in emotionally expressive painting, Guenther says his tastes are catholic. In Chicago, for example, he acquired work by such conceptually oriented artists as John Baldessari, Joseph Kosuth and Adrian Piper.
"Martin Kippenberger, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons," Guenther rapidly recites the names of some internationally known contemporary artists. "They are all of interest to me."
But, he adds, "I'm not interested in promoting and profiting on the backs of a certain group of artists. I'm interested in creating a program that has long-term value and depth, that helps an audience in a specific institution grow and to bring them . . . in touch with the diversity and the specific reality of the moment. That is not about one thin sliver of the art world."
Newport Harbor, Guenther says, wants to serve more "diverse" people. (Significantly, the California Arts Council cut its 1990 grant to the museum by more than two-thirds partly because a council advisory panel said the institution wasn't reaching out to a multicultural audience.) But Guenther also notes his longstanding personal commitment to show minority artists.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago--where he was chief curator from 1987 until last summer--he showed work by such black artists as Romare Bearden and Betye and Alison Saar, as well as non-mainstream work by artists from Africa and Brazil.
In Seattle during the '80s, Guenther "was interested in multiculturalism before that was a phrase," according to Seattle Post Intelligencer art critic Regina Hackett. He showed the first contemporary American Indian artists ever given an exhibit at the Seattle museum. In 1986, his major exhibit, "Jacob Lawrence, American Painter," traced five decades of work by the black modernist artist and traveled to museums across the country.