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Museum Examines Other Plans : Art: Trustees at Newport Harbor are looking at some cheaper alternatives to the construction of a new facility.


NEWPORT BEACH — On the eve of a decision whether to postpone or proceed with plans to build a new facility, trustees of the Newport Harbor Art Museum are said to be "examining a whole variety of alternatives."

Though a source on the museum's executive committee would not reveal the nature of these alternatives, observers believe that one might be to rent space and establish a sort of satellite museum, such as the one the Laguna Art Museum maintains in the South Coast Plaza shopping mall in Costa Mesa.

This would help solve one of the museum's bigger problems--its current home in Newport Center is too small for the museum to show its permanent collection and temporary exhibitions at the same time--without locking the board into a full scale, long-term construction project.

Recent discussions with trustees worried about the impact of the recession indicate that they are likely to postpone more elaborate building plans until the economy rebounds. The question is scheduled to come before the 39-member board tomorrow night.

The $50-million proposal to construct and endow a new museum on 10.5 acres along Pacific Coast Highway has been on the back burner for many months now. Last week it was learned that the museum's once active building committee hasn't even met since the fall.

In an interview last month, museum director Michael Botwinick said a prolonged recession would keep the museum "in a deep freeze" because "you can't do a major capital campaign without capital. . . . There is no question in my mind (the recession) will affect the timing of our campaign." Botwinick has refused to elaborate.

Plans to expand the museum--currently housed in an undistinguished, 23,000-square-foot, 15-year-old building--date back to November, 1986. Initially, the museum was to have stayed in Fashion Island; its new home would have been part of a $300-million office, retail and residential complex proposed by the Irvine Co.

But Newport Beach voters rejected the idea of the complex itself. Irvine Co. chairman Donald Bren--the museum's most powerful trustee--then offered the site currently under consideration, at Pacific Coast Highway and MacArthur Boulevard.

Seeking a new building of distinction, to keep pace with the museum's increasing national profile in contemporary and modern art, the trustees held an international search for an architect that ended in November of 1987 with the hiring of Renzo Piano, a Genovese famous for the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Menil Collection in Houston.

Preliminary drawings of Piano's innovative, barrel-vaulted design for the Newport Harbor were unveiled in August, 1989. But one year later--when the project was in the schematic design phase--the trustees fired Piano, citing escalating costs and asserting that he had allotted insufficient gallery space.

Since 1990, the museum has retained Kohn Pedersen Fox Assoc., an award-winning designer of commercial high-rises, as a consultant. The New York-based firm has submitted several preliminary designs to the museum's building committee, none of which has been made public.

But meanwhile, the capital campaign has been foundering. In August, 1987, a fund-raising feasibility report by the New York-based Oram Group concluded that there was "potentially strong support on a region-wide basis" for what then was viewed as a $40-million campaign. At a formal dinner in December, 1988, the museum announced it had raised $10 million in a combination of cash and pledges.

But then fund raising apparently stalled. No further progress in the capital campaign ever has been reported.

Many trustees still appear committed to the building project in the long run. "We definitely need more space," trustee Susan Porter said last week. "The only reason we decide against it, if we do, will be pure economics, both locally and nationally."

The day-to-day financial health of the museum is not at issue. Newport Harbor's 1991-92 budget remains the same as the previous year's: $2 million. The museum posted gains in both earned and contributed income during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

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