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ART / CATHY CURTIS : Ambition and Acrimony : Cathleen Gallander Helped Newport Harbor Build a National Reputation, but There Were 'Growing Pains'

August 24, 1993|CATHY CURTIS

This is the fourth in an occasional series looking back at the history of Newport Harbor Art Museum, which marked its 30th anniversary last year under a cloud of staff layoffs, postponed building plans and a decline in the venturesome programming of earlier years.

The period between 1972 and 1983--when Newport had a succession of four directors, including one who returned five years after his rancorous departure--marked the museum's major period of turmoil.

On the positive side, the institution acquired a building of its own in Newport Center (moving from storefront space on West Balboa Boulevard), held some locally significant exhibits and began to define itself specifically as a museum of contemporary art.

This installment looks at the early 1980s, when chief curator Paul Schimmel began establishing the museum's nationwide reputation for its inventive contemporary and modern art exhibitions, under the short-lived leadership of director Cathleen Gallander.

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Early in 1980, Thomas Garver--serving his second stormy term as director of the Newport Harbor Art Museum--was abruptly dismissed by the board of trustees. Obliged to scour the art world for yet another leader, the board tried once again to lure Oakland Museum curator George Neubert, who instead accepted the post of associate director at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

After a four-month search, the board chose 49-year-old Cathleen Gallander, who had been director of the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi for the previous 19 years. Gallander, a graduate of the University of Texas and the Institute for Arts Administration at Harvard Business School, was Newport Harbor's first--and to date, its only--female director.

During Gallander's tenure, the South Texas museum was accredited by the American Assn. of Museums, more than doubled the size of its staff and budget and moved into a new building 10 times larger than the old one. After the move, an administrator who reported directly to the board was hired to lift day-to-day financial matters from Gallander's shoulders.

It was also during those years that she met Philip Johnson, the renowned architect who designed the museum's new home. Johnson, ever the high-toned aesthete, was concerned that his building house significant art, so he introduced Gallander to leading artists and collectors, and donated some of his own art to the museum.

Deputy director Marilyn Smith, who has held various positions at the Corpus Christi museum since 1972, recalled recently that Gallander was "very much self-taught in the area of the arts, but if she didn't know something, she would seek out an expert to find out. . . . She had a desire to bring quality to the community.

"Twenty years ago, some (of her choices) were a little too challenging. One thing that sticks in everyone's mind was (minimal artist) Donald Judd's plywood box series. Even the staff had a hard time understanding why are were doing these things. . . . I think she knew (her outlook) wouldn't always make friends."

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At Newport Harbor, however, Gallander's ambitious cultural vision apparently was at odds with her administrative skills.

On a Friday afternoon in May 1981, less than a year after she arrived, Gallander suddenly ordered museum curator Betty Turnbull to resign and leave the building by 5 p.m. Turnbull had been a museum volunteer since 1967, curator since 1977 and acting director in the mid-'70s. Figuring she'd be the next to go, Phyllis Lutjeans, the museum's curator of education, resigned shortly thereafter.

"Things have been in turmoil for a long time," Turnbull told a Times reporter after her forced resignation. "I have to take it as the way of the business. People have been very tense since the new regime instigated a lot of rigid rules and regulations. I heard rumors that this might happen, but I didn't pay attention to them."

At the time, Gallander said Turnbull's departure "was best for staff morale." Asked about the issue in a recent phone interview, the former director--now a private dealer in late 19th- and 20th-Century art in New York--was circumspect.

"Most directors like to build their own team," she said. "I felt I needed a team, and I wanted somebody with a broad international outlook."

Most observers agree that Gallander's major accomplishment was to hire 27-year-old Paul Schimmel as curator of exhibitions and collections in 1981. Before attending graduate school at New York University, he was curator of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston from 1975-78.

Working with Paul was "a wonderful experience," Gallander said. "I had been told (the trustees) wanted a museum with an international reputation, and I felt Paul was the person to help bring that about."

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