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Art-Collecting Couple Champions the Cause of Crafts : Dorothy and George Saxe showcase 120 objects in "Contemporary Crafts and the Saxe Collection" at Newport art museum.

March 14, 1994|ZAN DUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's not that they take no pride in making Art and Antiques magazine's annual list of the Top 100 collectors in the United States. But Dorothy and George Saxe see it not so much as a personal honor, but rather as recognition for the cause they've championed for years.

Besides amassing one of the country's leading collections of crafts--once rigidly viewed as inferior to fine arts for its focus on material and technique rather than intellectual concept--the Bay Area couple have long advocated the medium's admission into the hallowed halls of mainstream art.

"We started out to try to have craft material elevated and included in the art world," George Saxe said the other day, "and I think that in some small way maybe we have done that."

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A measure of the Saxes' efforts arrives at Newport Harbor Art Museum: "Contemporary Crafts and the Saxe Collection" showcases 120 objects from their holdings, roughly half of which they donated in 1990 to the Toledo Museum of Art, where the show also originated.

"We have never constructed barriers between the decorative arts and the so-called fine arts," said Toledo museum director David W. Steadman. "A number of major pieces in the Saxe collection have been exhibited within our regular contemporary art galleries."

There should be no separation, agreed Bruce Guenther, chief curator at Newport Harbor, which, he said, had never hosted a large craft show.

Graceful vases, rotund bowls, whimsical figurines, woven wall hangings, delicate baskets, sculpture and purely abstract, enigmatic forms make up the exhibition of works in glass, clay, fiber, metal and wood.

Nearly 100 emerging and well-known artists from around the world are represented. Many of them are classed as contemporary artists, not craftspeople, and exhibited in fine art galleries and museums. About one-fourth are from California, a leader in the crafts movement, including Robert Arneson, Viola Frey, Sam Maloof, Peter Voulkos and Beatrice Wood. Ceramist Jerry Rothman, who will give a lecture at the museum on May 3, resides in Laguna Beach.

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In a recent three-way phone interview from their Menlo Park home, the Saxes discussed their passion, Dorothy repeating a point she's obviously made before.

"There's good art and there's bad art," she said, "and who is to say a sculpture made of marble or bronze is anything more wonderful than something made of glass or clay? The material is secondary--it's the concept and execution that's paramount--and we're interested in crafts that have the same aesthetic expectations, whether in ideas or in execution, as the best fine art."

Frequent travelers, the couple had always picked up handmade knickknacks abroad, but never with any grand intention. Even their first expensive piece--by the renown glass artist Dale Chihuly--was purchased merely for home decoration.

"We've always liked glass," Dorothy said.

In 1980, around the time they began to seek a new, joint avocation--now that their three grown children had left home--the Saxes discovered a catalogue from an exhibition at the Corning Museum of Glass in Upstate New York.

"I looked through that book," said George, a semi-retired real estate developer, "and I said to Dorothy, 'My God, I've never seen anything so beautiful in my life.' It just sort of took our breath away, and we said, maybe this is something we'd be interested in."

Concentrating first on glass--which, along with ceramics, dominates their collection--the Saxes branched out. As the scope of their acquisitions grew, so did their efforts to strengthen the field.

The '80s were a boom time for patronage of all the arts, and, rather than buying direct, the Saxes became staunch supporters of a burgeoning craft-gallery network.

The Saxes also began promoting education, joining the boards of the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and the renowned Pilchuck Glass School in Washington. They continue to allow students to tour their home, where even the place mats and each piece of furniture are handcrafted.

"We think that this is a field of endeavor that has been under-seen and under-appreciated," Dorothy said, "and we do everything we can to make sure the work is seen and artists continue to produce it and people continue to appreciate it."

Their gift to the Toledo museum, an art museum that has a long history of glass collecting, consists mainly of glass works.

All told, the Saxes have acquired more than 600 craft items. "Just this morning," George Saxe said, Oakland craft artist Gail Fredell "was here. We have commissioned her to do our dining-room chairs, and it's been a sort of joint venture, where she keeps us posted as she goes through the process of development and design and gets feedback from us."

* "Contemporary Crafts and the Saxe Collection" runs through June 5 at Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. $2-$4. Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. For related lectures and activities, call (714) 759-1122.

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