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Orange County Museums Vote to Merge

Art: Newport Harbor and Laguna institutions hope to gain prestige by combining, though some hurdles remain.


Trustees of the Newport Harbor Art Museum and the Laguna Art Museum voted Tuesday evening to merge, with the intention of becoming one world-class institution able to attract nationally touring exhibitions of works by famous artists.

Despite a groundswell of protest from some members in the last few days, the merger could take place as early as March 31. But first, following the Laguna museum's bylaws, it must be ratified by a majority of that museum's 1,500 general members.

Board members said it will take about a month to poll the Laguna members by mail. No general membership vote is needed by the Newport Harbor museum.

If Laguna members approve the merger, the new museum will be called the Orange County Museum of Art, with a mission to showcase California art from the late 19th century to the present.

"It's an incredible turning point for the people of Orange County," said Gilbert LeVasseur, the Laguna board president and a corporate merger specialist who has been leading the movement to combine the museums.

Consolidating, LeVasseur continued, would "assure the financial stability and security of our institutions . . . and enable us to grow and serve the art lovers of Orange County in a much better way [than either] museum has in the past."

Charles Martin, who was elected president of the new board, said if the merger is approved, the board would name a planning committee to study whether to move the two collections to one site. In the meantime, the two museums will continue to operate for at least a year.

Martin said the new museum might remain at the site of the expanded Newport Harbor Art Museum or seek a new permanent home near South Coast Plaza, Laguna Beach or Irvine. He said he did not know what might become of the Laguna site the museum has occupied on Cliff Drive since 1929.

Earlier, LeVasseur said the board would "try to keep the [Laguna museum] open as long as possible" but that if, after a year or so, "keeping it open jeopardizes the financial position of the [combined museum], we will probably look to move."

The only major contingency other than approval by the Laguna general membership is that both museums must be debt-free to merge, LeVasseur said. He announced that the Laguna museum's $127,000 debt has been settled, but the Newport museum remains $250,000 in debt. He did not disclose how Laguna settled the debt.

Board members announced that the James Irvine Foundation would donate $60,000 to help with the transition if the merger occurred, but would withdraw its support of the Laguna Art Museum if it did not.

Earlier Tuesday, about 150 artists and members picketed for 90 minutes in front of the Laguna museum despite a heavy rain.

"This is the rape of our museum," said G. Ray Kerciu, a Laguna museum member and Cal State Fullerton art professor. "A merger means they will have ripped the heart out of our city."

The controversy hits home in Laguna Beach, whose museum traces its lineage to the Laguna Beach Art Assn., founded in 1918, and whose members included painters Edgar A. Payne, Frank W. Cuprien and Anna A. Hills.

If the merger is completed, the two staffs will be consolidated and will operate out of Newport Harbor's site near Fashion Island. Martin said the 37 staff members between the two museums would probably be reduced by about a third if the consolidation occurs.

Laguna museum director Naomi Vine was named director of the consolidated museum.

Officials said Newport Harbor director Michael Botwinick, whose contract expires next year, will stay on to assist in the interim.

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