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Museum Merger: Weighing Pros and Cons

Art: The union of Newport, Laguna facilities is still just in the talking stage, but other such marriages may provide a clue to what can be expected--and maybe what should be avoided.

February 20, 1996|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The long-discussed possibility of a merger between the Laguna Art Museum and the Newport Harbor Art Museum has moved closer to decisive action in recent months. A six-person committee has been actively pursuing the union of the two museums for the past three months, under the leadership of a trustee with experience in business mergers.

No one knows how a vote by respective museum trustees on whether to merge will turn out. No one even seems to know when the vote will be taken. So far, there are many more questions than answers. Issues of management, staffing, finances and location are up in the air.

But perhaps it's time to step back and look at the bigger picture. What are the advantages and disadvantages of museum mergers in general? What kinds of issues need to be considered before making an intelligent move? Are financial reasons sufficient grounds for a successful merger?

Let's look at what we know about the collections of the museums in question and then consider how directors at other museums assess the merger option.

The Newport Harbor Art Museum was founded in 1962 to bring modern and contemporary art to Orange County. Now numbering more than 2,000 pieces, its collection was started in 1971 with a donation from AVCO Financial Services of 34 works by prominent artists of the '50s and '60s (including Joseph Albers, Franz Kline and Louise Nevelson)--a collection hand-picked by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.

It wasn't until the mid-'70s that Newport Harbor decided not to compete with the broad, generalized collections of other museums in the region and instead concentrate specifically on California art from the post-World War II period. Among the nationally prominent California artists represented in the collection are John Baldessari, Ed Moses, John Altoon, Ed Kienholz, John McCracken, Richard Diebenkorn, Bruce Connor, Chris Burden, Bill Viola and Vija Celmins.

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Meanwhile, the museum has continued to acquire works by major American artists--such as Claes Oldenburg, Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre--that help put the California pieces in a broader context.

The Laguna Art Museum, established in 1918 as an artists' association, owns more than 3,000 works representing a bigger chunk of California art history, from the 19th century to the present.

Among the California Impressionist paintings in its collection are 41 works by George Kennedy Brandriff, donated by the artist's widow, and canvases by Guy Rose, William Wendt and Franz A. Bischoff.

The museum's long-standing interest in regional artists has resulted in holdings of work by such minor but deserving artists as Ben Messick, Dan Lutz, Vic Joachim Smith and John Paul Jones. Modern and contemporary artists with national reputations include John McLaughlin, Lorser Feitelson, Llyn Foulkes, Ruscha and Herms. (Not surprisingly, certain contemporary artists are represented in both collections.)

On the most obvious level, the two museums could better tell the story of California art if they merged. Newport Harbor owns a larger, more sophisticated body of work by contemporary artists. But other missing pieces would have to be filled by donation or purchase. Although Newport Harbor has a key group of Bay Area Figurative paintings, neither museum is strong in Northern California work or in California photography or video.

And then there is the problem of quality. The Laguna museum probably is oversupplied with work by minor local artists to suit the broader focus merger supporters seem to have in mind when talking about a "world-class" museum that would be "larger than the sum of its parts."

One key point the supporters make is the desirability of attracting major traveling exhibitions assembled by leading institutions worldwide, much as the Orange County Performing Arts Center hosts some of the world's major performing-arts companies.

Prefacing his remarks by saying it is difficult to comment at such an early stage in the merger efforts, Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, said that combining the assets of both museums "should make for one stronger institution, but it's not going to take them into a different echelon. It takes years of building a collection and building a reputation to reach the pinnacles [that supporters of the plan] seem to be talking about."

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In fact, Newport Harbor in its glory days--the 1980s--came the closest to the "world-class" goal. It exhibited numerous European contemporary artists, produced major shows on Abstract Expressionism and had its biggest viewership ever in 1982, with an exhibition of paintings from the early decades of the 20th century by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch.

But most museum professionals declare the era of the multivenue blockbuster exhibition to be over, a victim of worries about transporting fragile works as well as the downsizing of arts institutions.

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