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Sale of Outerbridge Photo Collection Spurs Debate : The Mission of Laguna Museum Is to Serve the Community

February 19, 1996|NAOMI VINE | Naomi Vine has been the director of Laguna Art Museum since March 1

The following article was written in response to Times art critic Christopher Knight's commentary "A Most Misguided Mission" (Calendar, Feb. 8).

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It has been deeply gratifying for all of us who work at Laguna Art Museum to learn of this community's interest in our permanent collection. The artists who founded this institution in 1918 had a heartfelt desire to create an environment in which works of art would be meaningfully integrated into the fabric of daily life.

Maintaining and preserving such an art collection is a serious responsibility, and we do not take it lightly. Proper storage materials and facilities, consistent climate controls appropriate to each of the diverse media in the collection, fine-art insurance, careful handling by trained preparators and periodic inspection and treatment by conservation experts are just some of the expenses associated with the adequate care of an art collection. Confronted with declining contributions and income, we must devote our limited resources to the most essential activities, as defined by our mission statement.

Laguna Art Museum has a very specific mission, a reason for existing, which is regularly reexamined and endorsed--or revised--by the community representatives who serve as volunteers on our board of trustees. According to our charter, everything we do--from presenting exhibitions and education programs to collecting works of art--must derive directly from our mission statement, which stipulates that our primary focus is collecting and exhibiting the work of California artists.

Like most art museums in the United States, Laguna Art Museum has a collection that has grown erratically over the years, primarily by means of gifts from private collectors and artists. Most of the art objects that we store, conserve, insure and handle with great care were given many years ago when the museum had relatively few pieces to care for, and when these activities were far less costly. Museums everywhere are now being forced to reexamine their collections to make sure the objects on which they are expending such a large percentage of their increasingly limited resources are genuinely meeting the needs and expectations of the communities that support them.

These are the considerations that weighed heavily on the minds of former director Charles Desmarais and his curatorial staff when they deaccessioned the Outerbridge collection in October 1993, after 18 months of careful and well-documented deliberation. (Deaccessioning is the official procedure by which works of art are legally removed from an institution's permanent collection.)

Desmarais is well-known for his expertise in the history of photography, so his recommendation was taken very seriously. The deliberations took place during regular meetings of the collections committee, a group of knowledgeable art historians, collectors, attorneys and other professionals who volunteer their time to represent the community and assist the museum in making decisions about the collection. Knowing the museum's mission, Lois Outerbridge Cunningham gave these works to benefit this institution and this community, and did not request that they be maintained indefinitely or kept together; similarly, no caveats qualified the deaccession in any way.

Desmarais meticulously followed all professional guidelines established by the American Assn. of Museums in formulating a plan to sell the photographs. The staff obtained several competitive appraisals and made a good-faith effort to keep the collection intact, as well as to place it in another public institution. In this economic climate it is difficult for even the wealthiest museums to obtain acquisition funds, and after two years these efforts were not successful. In this situation, the most ethical course of action--as prescribed by the American Assn. of Museums and planned by the Laguna Art Museum staff in 1993--is to sell the artwork at public auction, which makes the photographs equally available to any interested buyer, and prevents anyone associated with the museum from benefiting personally from the sale.

All proceeds from the sale of the Outerbridge photographs will be used to purchase works of art that fulfill particular objectives in a collections plan, specific to the museum's mission, which has been thoughtfully developed by our curatorial staff over the last five years. Implementation of this plan will result in a highly significant public collection of California art.

At every step in this necessarily lengthy process, the museum's staff, board and committee members acted with impeccable integrity and with true commitment to fulfilling an institutional mission that is deeply rooted in this community's unique history and art.

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