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A Most Misguided Mission

Commentary: The Laguna Art Museum's decision to sell off its collection of Outerbridge photographs is ill-considered--at best.

February 08, 1996|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Last week, alarming news arrived that the Laguna Art Museum had consigned its unparalleled collection of photographs by American Modernist artist Paul Outerbridge (1896-1958) to the auction block at Christie's, New York, to be sold piece by piece at sales scheduled in the spring and fall. The decision is a dramatic one.

So dramatic that, if the plug doesn't get pulled on this foolish plan, the sale promises to disfigure the artistic face of the museum. The Outerbridge auction should be condemned in the most forceful terms.

Deaccessioning--the sale of art from a museum's permanent collection--is among the most potentially volatile activities a museum can undertake. Because the very idea of a permanent collection gets made into an oxymoron, the decision to deaccession must be handled with kid gloves.

For the Outerbridge sale, the Laguna museum seems to have slipped on boxing gloves over fuzzy mittens. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who can offer a cogent reason for dispersing this stellar piece of Southern California's artistic patrimony.

Museum officials have told The Times that the Outerbridge works just don't fit the institution's mission, which they have implied is limited to California art. Outerbridge lived in Laguna from 1943 until his death, but the collection's photographs predate his arrival, when he worked in New York and Europe. None were made in California.

However, a review of the museum's written mission statement shows that it does not in fact rule out art made outside the state. In its entirety, it reads: "Laguna Art Museum is a museum of American art with a special focus on the art of California. Its purpose is to promote the understanding of the role of art and artists in American culture through collection, exhibition, research and instruction."

Furthermore the museum's collection policy statement declares: "The focus of the Laguna Art Museum collection is on the art of California and related works, with an emphasis on the 20th century."

The Outerbridge photographs are clearly within the parameters of both the mission statement and the collecting policy. In fact, more than any other major American artist represented in its collection, Outerbridge and his artistic fortunes are intimately bound up with California and the Laguna Art Museum.

Paul Outerbridge was ranked a minor figure with a nonetheless solid reputation in 1968, when his widow, Lois Outerbridge Cunningham, gave to the museum a group of 71 platinum, silver bromide and color prints, all dating from the 1920s and 1930s. Among them are unique images, for which no duplicate photographs exist.

About a decade after the museum gift was made, something rare occurred. That odd process known as "rediscovery" took place. Outerbridge's star began to rise.

There were many reasons why. Photography had acquired new stature, while a competitive commercial market was developing in ways it never had before. Forgotten figures began to be reassessed.

Pop art had also brought about new interest in the visual tropes of advertising, which Outerbridge employed early on. Color photography, hitherto regarded with suspicion because of its ties to commercial art, started to be reevaluated.

The subtly charged, psychosexual playfulness evident in many of his fetishistic pictures of nudes even resonated against the current work of such notable artists as Cindy Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe and Helmut Newton. Outerbridge emerged as a pivotal ancestor.

The apotheosis came in 1981 when the museum mounted a critically important touring retrospective, complete with a catalog raisonne, which finally secured his artistic reputation. Examples of Outerbridge's photographs could be found in a variety of major American museums, but no public collection was as large or significant as Laguna's.

As the artist's star rose, so did the museum's. The Laguna museum is not an otherwise distinguished institution with an extraordinary collection, and aside from an occasional standout show, its exhibition program has never been more than mediocre. For the first time in its history, the sleepy seaside outpost could claim a distinction unique among American museums.

After 27 years as part of the museum's collection, where the photographs have been seen by untold thousands, and as precisely the art that lifted the museum out of its lowly reputation as a provincial backwater, the Outerbridge collection has been deeply woven into the fabric of Southern California's cultural life. No amount of backtracking now can separate these pictures from their integral place in the history of art in California.

With minor refinements, the museum's mission statement today is the same as it has always been--the same as when the collection came to the museum, the retrospective was mounted, the catalog published. Why should the Outerbridge collection suddenly be thought to no longer fit?

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