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Merger Foes Vow to Fight Union of Two Museums

Arts: But it's unclear how or if opponents can derail plans approved by Newport Harbor and Laguna officials.

February 29, 1996|ZAN DUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tuesday's vote to merge the Newport Harbor and Laguna Art Museums has left merger opponents angry but without a unified plan as to what to do next. Museum officials, meanwhile, are dismissing the most vocal opponents as an uncivil minority unworthy of serious attention.

The vote, by the museum boards, must be ratified by members of the Laguna museum, who have been among the most visible opponents. But even though there are 1,500 members, as few as 11 could settle the matter. According to what one museum official admits is a "strange artifact" of the institution's decades-old bylaws, 21 members make up a quorum, and a simple majority rules.

Opponents said Wednesday that no firm plans have been devised to campaign against ratification or otherwise block the merger. But "We're not going to give up the fight," said G. Ray Kerciu, a Cal State Fullerton art professor who has been a leader of the anti-merger faction. Kerciu said some of his allies are asking city officials to intercede or at least to hold an emergency meeting on the issue.

Charles Martin, a Newport Harbor trustee who will be president of the combined museum board if the merger goes through, said Wednesday that "there's no way you can sit down and talk to or reason with" the most vociferous dissenters. "It's a waste of time . . . . They are pretty radical." He did not name those he considers the most troublesome. He added, though, that museum officials are "happy to talk with" other dissenters and to hear their opinions.

He said a letter explaining and recommending the merger will be sent to members within seven days, along with their ratification ballots. A phone campaign also will be undertaken. The ballots must be returned within a month, Martin said.

Opponents are concerned that the merger will close the Laguna Art Museum building and that the merger was discussed and approved by board members without the museum members' input. Museum membership is given to anyone who donates $35 or more annually.

Laguna museum board president Gilbert LeVasseur said that if the building is vacated, the board may lease it to the city of Laguna Beach for $1 a year for five years, with an option for the city to buy it, so it can be used as an arts center for the community. He said he is meeting with city officials to discuss the possibility.

Martin said the Laguna museum "would not be the main exhibition site" if a merger takes place but that "no decisions have been made about the ultimate [use] of the Laguna facility" other than to make it available to the city in accordance with the plan outlined by LeVasseur.

Martin also said that museum officials welcome input from the community regarding the future use of the building.

"We want to do what's right here," Martin said. "We just don't want to waste time."

While many opponents have complained about a lack of information regarding the merger (although board members had been discussing it for months, members were not officially informed of the merger until a few days before Tuesday's vote), Martin said he had no regrets about the way the board vote was handled.

"You're caught between a rock and a hard place," he said. "You really would like to share the information as soon as it's available, but you don't want to get it out there prematurely while decisions are still being made and there's a great deal of uncertainty whether anything is going to happen."

In related developments, Martin said the Newport Harbor museum, in Newport Beach, has raised about 70% of the $3.2 million it needs for a planned expansion. He said the funding, in cash and pledges, has come from trustees, foundations and other museum supporters.

According to the agreement approved Tuesday, both museums must be debt-free before a merger can take place. That means Newport Harbor would have to retire an accumulated deficit of $250,000. Martin said Wednesday that the museum has raised more than half that amount in cash and pledges from trustees. He said he is confident that the remainder will come from trustees not yet contacted and from other museum supporters.

LeVasseur announced Tuesday that the Laguna museum has retired its own deficit of $127,000 through an operating surplus from this year's budget and "forgiveness" of part of a loan.

The museums, which would consolidate staffs if the merger takes place, will give laid-off employees severance pay determined by their positions and seniority, officials said.

It was announced Tuesday that Laguna director Naomi Vine would be the director of the combined museum, to be called the Orange County Museum of Art. Newport Harbor director Michael Botwinick said Wednesday that he "was not a candidate" for the job. He would not elaborate. His contract expires at the end of this year.

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