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Long in Latitude : Given Ample Elbow Room, Curator Paul Schimmel Put Newport Harbor on the Map in the '80s

This column is the sixth in an occasional series looking back at the history of the Newport Harbor Art Museum, which marked its 30th anniversary in 1993 under a cloud of staff layoffs, shelved building plans and a decline in the venturesome programming of earlier years. The decade between 1972 and 1983--when the museum had a succession of four directors, including one who returned five years after his rancorous departure--marked Newport Harbor's major period of turmoil. This is the second of two surveys of the Kevin Consey years, 1983-89, when the museum won nationwide acclaim for modern art exhibitions curated by Paul Schimmel, attracted impressive donor support and hired world-renowned architect Renzo Piano to design what was to have been a landmark building on Pacific Coast Highway.

March 08, 1994|CATHY CURTIS

During the mid-1980s, while director Kevin Consey concentrated on raising money and enthusiasm for a new, $20-million home for Newport Harbor on South Coast Highway, chief curator Paul Schimmel immersed himself in the museum's main reason for being: producing informative and provocative exhibitions of modern and contemporary art.

"My involvement with the building plan, the choices of the architect and design of the building was very, very little," Schimmel said recently. "I was working on the exhibitions, and Kevin wanted it to be that way. The building was his passion. In some respects, I was very fortunate because he was so involved with the building that I was able to concentrate my full energies on the exhibition program."

Beginning with "Action/Precision: The New Direction in New York 1955-60" in 1984 and continuing at two-year intervals, Schimmel's trio of exhibitions about key issues relating to Abstract Expressionist painting involved significant original research into historical topics.

Not that he neglected contemporary art. One of his major achievements at Newport Harbor was "Chris Burden: A Twenty-Year Survey" from 1988. With its assembly of objects used in Burden's performances, its inclusion of two massive installations and its authoritative catalogue, the show offered a probing analysis and overview of the work of a seminal performance artist.

Although Burden had received his master of fine arts degree from UC Irvine--and even had a work-study job at Newport Harbor during his student years--the Orange County connection was not the impetus for the retrospective. Schimmel never was one to champion artists simply for geographic reasons, which provoked much grumbling in local studios.

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Other landmarks in Schimmel's Newport Harbor career included the first Newport Biennial, "Los Angeles Today," in 1984, a survey of California artists of two generations, including Mike Kelley, Jill Giegerich, Charles Garabedian and Ed Moses. Like virtually all exhibitions at the museum, it was documented by a thorough catalogue, supporting the museum's growing reputation for serious scholarship.

Schimmel also founded the "New California Artists" series, which spotlighted Los Angeles up-and-comers. The program initially was run by Schimmel and associate curator Tom Heller (best remembered for his California Culture Series, a blend of alternative and avant-garde classical music programming).

After Heller left, "New California Artists" really took off under Anne Ayres, associate curator of exhibitions and collections from 1986 to 1988, when she became director of the Art Gallery at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. Ayres, whose background was in university teaching, complemented Schimmel's more freewheeling personality with a series of meticulous and sensitive brochure essays expressing a keenly intellectual outlook on contemporary art.

During the '80s, Newport Harbor became a player in the national art scene as shows were picked up by such major institutions as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.

Attention paid by the major East Coast art press was another sign of major league status. "Chris Burden," for example, made the pages of Artforum, Flash Art, Arts, Art in America and ArtNews magazines, as well as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

New additions during Schimmel's curatorship, which more than doubled the collection, encompassed a roll call of such major California postwar artists as John Baldessari, Ed Kienholtz, David Park, Ed Ruscha, John Altoon, Vija Celmins, Robert Irwin, Charles Ray, Allen Ruppersberg, Chris Burden and James Turrell.

Meanwhile, Schimmel's taste and knowledge helped guide the Acquisition Committee, which raised money to buy works for the museum. When members visited the private collection of Aggie Gund, then president of the board of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, "they would know what they were looking at," Schimmel says. "That was very impressive for a small institution. It also helped me in terms of getting loans. It gave the museum credibility."

Schimmel and Consey were not always in accord. Their differences came to a boil over the declining amount of exhibition space in the new building when its size was decreased to save money. Schimmel says he was adamant that actual gallery space not be confused with other public spaces "where the art is in fact decorating the architecture."

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