Behind the pillars of the old City Hall in downtown Oxnard, the Carnegie Art Museum is undergoing a transformation.
Opened 13 years ago as a community art center, the small but aggressive museum has since attempted to paint itself as a serious cultural center, hoping to play a role in filling what the museum's director calls "the cultural void between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara."
Until now the museum has primarily been funded by city money and private grants, but belt tightening in Oxnard combined with a hope for increased community involvement prompted director Andrew Voth to take a new approach.
Beginning in July, Voth will establish an advisory board as a fund-raising arm of the museum, and a membership program which will serve to raise money and spark interest in the museum's exhibits and educational events.
The museum will also begin charging an admission fee of $2 in July. Until now the museum has asked for donations, but never required a fee.
"I'm sure some people will not like the fact that we're charging admission," Voth said. "But this is the real world, and most people realize it costs money to maintain a museum like this."
The museum received $150,000 from the city in this year's budget to compensate the director and two part-time employees. It was a cut of $30,000 from last year.
Voth said the museum is trying to do its part in attracting top-flight exhibits without the expense.
"Most museums rent exhibits," Voth explained. "We have no budget to pay $50,000 to bring an exhibit from L.A., so we decided if we wanted those kinds of exhibits, we'd have to create our own."
Voth and Suzanne Bellah, the museum curator, meet with art collectors, owners and the artists themselves, and once they are granted access to the art, they create an exhibit. Their work entails researching the history and background of each piece, coming up with proper displays for the art and putting the collection together in a coherent fashion.
In the past few years they have created exhibits for the work of Robert Olszewski, a Camarillo artist known for his miniature carvings; Frank Romero, a leading Chicano artist from Los Angeles, and the current collection of work by painters Arnold Schifrin and Karl Benjamin and sculptor Douglas McClellan, all of whom worked together in Claremont.
Next month Bellah and Voth will put together an exhibit of the work of Mexican artist Chucho Reyes.
At 9,800 square feet, the museum does not have the size or stature to compete with major Southern California museums, but it does, in addition to its exhibits, claim a permanent collection of art that has been donated piece by piece to the city of Oxnard over the past 70 years.
Voth said the collection, which includes more than 200 paintings, photographs and sculptures, has grown tremendously in the past 13 years, and it is now insured for $1 million.
"I was impressed by the building and by the exhibit for a museum of this size," said Paul Perrot, the director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, who recently visited the Carnegie Museum for the first time. "I intend to go back."
Perrot said the contribution a local museum can make to the community is often underestimated. "It is a tremendous asset to provide education, cultural awareness and artistic excitement for the community," he said. "It is an important part of society."
Bellah said the museum has made an effort to meet its obligation to the community by opening it to the county's schools, many of which have truncated arts programs because of budget cuts.
Volunteer docents lead tours of the museum for classes of all ages. "For many of these schools we act as a surrogate arts class," Bellah said.
Last week a group of 30 first-graders from the Mound School in Ventura toured the museum and participated in a hands-on art class in the museum's basement.
The first-graders stared at a three dimensional wire box by McClellan, trying to make sense of its contents. There were spiral towers, a tooth, the spine of a fish--what did it all mean?
"It doesn't matter," the docent told the children. "Doug McClellan just wants you to have fun and enjoy the art the way he did."
The first-graders seemed to accept this answer. "I think it's really fun and really neat," 7-year-old Amy Wilson said after the tour had ended. "I'm going to try to make stuff like this at home."
Parents also seemed pleased with the experience.
"The kids are just fascinated," said Dawna Rhodes, whose daughter Jessica was on the tour. "I think it's great because they see the exhibit and then get to try it on their own. They let them express themselves."
(East Ventura County Edition) FYI
The Carnegie Art Museum is at 424 South C St., Oxnard. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. The telephone number is 385-8157. Admission beginning in July will be $2.