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PORTRAIT OF PROGRESS : After 75 Years, Modernists at the Laguna Art Museum Have Day in the Sun

April 01, 1993|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

In the early days of the Laguna Beach Art Assn.--the forerunner of the Laguna Art Museum, which celebrates its 75th birthday this year--life was sweet. Virtually all Southern California artists in the late 'teens and '20s were painting landscapes in styles more or less derivative of French Impressionism, and both the artist-founders of the association and their public welcomed having a permanent place to view local work.

But by the early '30s, the fussin' and fightin' had begun. For nearly 60 years--despite perennial flurries of indignation by the modernists (who preferred abstraction and other contemporary styles)--the traditionalists retained the upper hand, relegating the museum to the status of a sleepy, regional outpost.

In a 1938 article, Los Angeles Times art critic Arthur Millier testily described the factional Laguna Beach art scene as a potpourri of:

". . . older professional artists who helped found the colony before boulevards, realtors and bourgeoisie flocked in . . . a group of amateur or businessman painters whose artless productions are often preferred as souvenirs of the art colony by gas buggy tourists . . . a sprinkling of 'pinkish' youth who talk learnedly about modern art but seldom work hard at it, or at anything . . . (and) a precious nugget of a few souls who want to galvanize the sluggish stream of colony art by attracting vital outside work into local exhibits."

The provincialism of the association was no deterrent to local artists and art lovers, however. In a close-knit small-town environment, the institution was a cultural bulwark, a professional society, a sales gallery and a club house, all rolled into one.

After 1972, when the association became a museum, the main agenda shifted from honoring local artists and selling their work to surveying the broader picture of California art. During the past few years, the exhibition calendar has tilted gradually toward more adventurous contemporary work at odds with the traditional arts-and-crafts colony outlook that typifies Laguna Beach.

Although the new direction of the museum has provoked a good deal of local grumbling, the horizon-broadening benefits to artists and viewers have been immeasurable. Anyhow, after 75 years, the museum's progressive faction has been long overdue for its day in the sun.

The following timeline traces some of the high points in the colorful and checkered past of the oldest cultural institution in Orange County.

1918: Laguna Beach is a strikingly lovely coastal hamlet with limited amenities: dirt roads, a hotel, a store, a post office and a single telephone.

Under leadership of Edgar Payne, Laguna Beach artists transform the unused former town hall--a small wooden building north of the Hotel Laguna--into a gallery where they can exhibit. The first show opens July 27, with paintings by Granville Redmond, Frank Cuprien, Anna Hills, Jack Wilkinson Smith and George Gardner Symons.

After an avalanche of visitors--2,000 during the first three weeks--the artists decide to make the gallery a permanent institution. On Aug. 22, the Laguna Beach Art Assn. is founded with 150 charter members--half the size of Laguna Beach's summer population! (Only 35 members were artists, however, more than half of whom lived in Los Angeles.)

The association holds bimonthly exhibitions of members' art (primarily landscapes, all for sale) and Saturday night receptions with music recitals, dramatic presentations and lectures.

1919: First art auction, with paintings donated by member artists.

1921: Members commission Los Angeles architect Myron Hunt to design a fireproof new building, and president Anna Hills becomes chairman of the fund-raising committee. Hills also initiates the museum's educational outreach programs--decades before "outreach" was in anyone's vocabulary--with a junior high school talk.

1922: Obliged to start paying rent, the association levies its first-ever entrance fee (10 cents, the price of a movie ticket).

1923: Developer H.G. Heisler sells a half-acre lot of ocean-view property at the corner of Cliff Drive and Pacific Coast Highway to the association for $2,000, but a coastal survey prevents the deed from changing hands until 1925.

1929: The $20,000 reinforced concrete building with a 60-by-36-foot main gallery (now the Steele Gallery) opens Feb. 16, 1929. Construction funds were raised through private donations and by such quaint-sounding events as a Peace Pipe Pageant and the Laguna Women's Club Greek Moonlight Festival. There are now 700 association members, but only 45 are artists living in Laguna Beach.

1932: The association and the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce are co-founders of the Festival of the Arts, a combination of tableaux vivants (living paintings staged in the "The Pageant of the Masters") and arts and crafts exhibits that nets the association several hundred dollars each year.

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