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O.C. ART / CATHY CURTIS : Museum Adds Realism to Renovation Picture : Newport Harbor's scaled-down solution to its space problem may prove that less is more, especially in these economic and social climes.

September 22, 1993|CATHY CURTIS

It's hardly news that the go-go years are gone. We've veered from the fast lane to econo-car, buy-it-on-sale, pay-off-the-credit-card mode. So it didn't come as a surprise last week to find out that the Newport Harbor Art Museum has firmly turned its sights away from commissioning a major building from a major--or even a not-so-major--architect.

In fact, the museum's latest solution to its perennial problem of insufficient space to exhibit both traveling shows and objects from the permanent collection sounds reasonable and workable.

The plan is to create a two-building museum by moving into the similarly nondescript Newport Center structure next door, a space that will be vacated next spring by the library when it moves to a new building. Obviously, this is not the best-of-all-possible-worlds solution, but it it does seem to be the best solution for this particular world.

When the renovation is complete, the present museum building would be enlarged slightly to house five galleries of various sizes (doubling the current gallery space), collection-storage and preparation areas, and the bookstore and cafe. The interior of the library building would be reconfigured to contain a small auditorium, a multipurpose room, classrooms, a "hands-on" gallery for children and administrative offices.

From the outside, hardly anything will look different, since the additions will be on the rear portions of the east and west sides of the museum building. At best, the entrance may be spiffed up a bit, and there might be a walkway of some kind between the two buildings.

But even the design by internationally famed architect Renzo Piano for a $30-million, 87,000-square-foot new building lacked a fancy facade, since the structure was supposed to nestle unobtrusively into a Pacific Coast Highway hillside where local codes preclude roof lines from blocking neighbors' views of the ocean.

A more pertinent similarity between the Piano plan and the renovation is that both provide for approximately the same amount of gallery space: about 18,500 square feet. Curiously enough, one key reason (other than escalating costs) that Piano's plan ultimately was deemed unworkable was the lack of sufficient gallery space.

Museum director Michael Botwinick took pains to point out last week that the gallery space in the renovation would be about 40% of the entire space, versus 23% of the total space in the Piano design. Given the modest scale of the new project, nobody could say that the museum isn't doing its damnedest to provide as much gallery space as possible right now.

Yet it is hard not to view the museum's modest building plan as a kissin' cousin of its new, let's-not-make-waves attitude toward exhibitions.

Under Botwinick, the museum's emphasis has shifted from the ground-breaking scholarly exhibitions of modern art and cutting-edge shows of contemporary art that put the museum on the national art map in the late 1980s.

Newport Harbor's new stress--imperfectly realized thus far--is on luring Orange County viewers who don't know (or care) much about contemporary art.

Once a lively rival of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, Newport Harbor in recent years has not been coming up with the sort of smart, edgy, gotta-see-'em shows that lure the tastemakers and the younger art crowd.

Although times are tough everywhere in Southern California, a look northward at "Rolywholyover A Circus," a highly adventurous tribute to the late avant-garde composer John Cage, which opened last week at the MOCA, is proof that some contemporary art museums are still breaking new ground.

Still, if the endowment sought in addition to building funds will enable Newport Harbor to rev up to former staffing levels--which Botwinick said was his goal--that's good news. (The museum lost one-third of its staff in a series of layoffs during the past couple of years; back in the '80s, two curators were planning shows and a full-time editor worked on exhibition catalogues; now there is just one curator and no editor.)

Similarly, the presence of a real auditorium in the library building--a first for the museum, which has had to make do with the cramped Lyon Room--is likely to stimulate cross-disciplinary programming.

Maybe someday--along with the crowd-pleasing old movies (i.e. the recent Marlene Dietrich series) and the exhibition-related lectures already on the schedule--the museum will bring back the "Contemporary Culture" series, with its cornucopia of forward-looking music and performance art that helped bring people up to speed on the outer realms of contemporary art.

A staff member attuned to the "coolest" blend of alternative offerings might attract students at UC Irvine and other colleges, perhaps with the help of campus liaisons.

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