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Laguna Museum Members Could Scuttle Merger

Art: Officials try to soothe fears that the institution would leave town upon joining forces with Newport Harbor.


LAGUNA BEACH — Opposition by rank-and-file members of the Laguna Art Museum could scuttle its proposal to merge with the Newport Harbor Art Museum of Newport Beach.

Both museums' boards of trustees are expected to vote on a merger plan Tuesday. But unless the decision is ratified by Laguna members (supporters who contribute $35 or more to the museum annually are granted membership), the merger is dead in the water, according to highly placed sources at each institution.

Laguna members will meet here today at the home of member G. Ray Kerciu, a Cal State Fullerton art professor, to discuss the issue. Museum Director Naomi Vine, various trustees, local artists and Laguna Beach City Councilwoman Kathleen Blackburn are expected to attend, Kerciu said Saturday.

Meanwhile, a three-page letter has been sent to the members by board President Gilbert LeVasseur stating that if a merger does not take place, "in this changing economic climate, there is a genuine risk that within several years the museum will not be able to continue to operate."

LeVasseur's letter attempts to calm those concerned that the 78-year-old museum will leave town if a merger takes place. It attributes these fears to a false "rumor" but goes on to note that the museum "building is problematic at best and does not serve the community effectively" because of inadequate parking and gallery and storage space.

However, LeVasseur adds that board members and city officials are trying to "maintain a permanent visual arts institution" on the museum's "historic site."

Jerry Rothman, an artist and longtime museum member who was attending a lecture at the museum Saturday, said that while he isn't necessarily opposed to "some coalition that forms a bigger and better museum," he thinks it would "just horrendous" if the museum left the city. "This museum built this city by establishing it as a cultural place for people to come to," Rothman said.

In any case, he added, there is another set of objections: Lack of information about the merger has "made it hard to trust" museum trustees. Indeed, LaVasseur's letter is the first official notification to members that a merger is being contemplated, even though serious talks have been underway since fall.

A museum staff member, who requested anonymity, expressed disgruntlement over "a lack of information [about the merger], particularly at a place this size."

Vine, the museum director, would not comment Saturday on any aspect of the situation.

Meanwhile, two administrative employees left the museum this week, but Vine says their departures were not connected, and neither was related to the merger talks.

She confirmed that Debi Barker, a development associate for individual support hired late in 1994, "left the museum" on Wednesday. Neither Vine nor Barker would explain why. Vine also confirmed that Debbie Folkes, coordinator of public relations and marketing, resigned on Jan. 21 and left this week. "We asked her to stay on an extra month, which she did as a favor to us," Vine said.

Proponents of a merger contend that a single, prominent institution would have a better chance of securing ever-diminishing funds from private and public sources and could keep administrative costs down.

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