LAGUNA BEACH — A firestorm of accusation and counteraccusation has swirled in recent weeks around the Laguna Art Museum's decision to break up and auction its 93-piece collection of work by internationally respected Modernist photographer Paul Outerbridge.
In a move that became public knowledge only last month, the museum has consigned the photographs, drawings and lithographs to Christie's, New York, which will offer the material April 20 and 23.
The dispute centers on whether Charles Desmarais--who was museum director from 1988 to March 1994 and who has been a critic of the sale--was in fact responsible for it.
Naomi Vine, director of the museum since last March, has said the decision to remove the works from the collection and the formulation of a plan to sell them was undertaken by Desmarais and his curatorial staff in October 1993 "after 18 months of careful and well-documented deliberation." But she has refused to make the documents public and has declined further comment.
Desmarais acknowledges that he was the first to raise the issue of the relevance of the Outerbridge material to the museum's collection. But he says it was part of a larger effort of exploring the museum's options in many areas--including the scope of the collection--and planning for its future.
Once the subject had been raised, he says, he found himself facing a barrage of trustee demands that the museum sell the works. But "I didn't make the decision [to sell] . . . no matter how much pressure had been applied.
"I argued until the day I left [the museum] that we not sell the collection piecemeal, that any proposed sale would have to include [the proviso] that it be kept together as a group, preferably in Southern California, and that we couldn't sell the collection without knowing [exactly] what we were doing with the proceeds. . . . Those three important [provisos] I wouldn't give up."
Minutes of a museum board meeting show that Desmarais eventually signed a letter authorizing a dealer to represent the museum.
He says that he doesn't remember the exact contents of the letter but that it "certainly was not an unconditional contract to sell the collection." The letter itself has not been made public by either side in the dispute.
(Actually, though documents show that steps were taken beginning in October 1993 to pave the way for ridding the museum of the Outerbridge material, the works still have not been formally deaccessioned. A museum source confirmed that it is the museum's practice to postpone this procedure until works from the collection actually are sold in order to minimize paperwork should the sale not be consummated.)
Desmarais also says he never would have permitted the works to be auctioned off. But Greg Escalante, a museum trustee and member of the Collections Committee, says he never remembers "Desmarais saying, 'Absolutely don't sell this at auction.' "
The minutes--from several meetings of the museum's Collections Committee in 1993 and 1994, provided by an anonymous source after Vine and other museum officials refused access to any official documents--shed some light on the dispute.
According to the minutes, most of the October 1993 meeting was devoted to an agenda item called "Deaccessions (Outerbridge)." After curator Bolton Colburn summarized Outerbridge's career and explained that the works owned by the museum were made before his California years, there was a general discussion.
Unnamed members voiced the idea of selling the entire Outerbridge collection to another institution--preferably the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, which had shown interest--and using the threat of consigning them to an auction house as a bargaining chip.
Near the meeting's end, according to the minutes, committee member Tim Pearson said he believed "it is clear that this committee prefers first going to the Getty, then to auction if necessary."
The minutes record no disclaimer or correction by Desmarais, though they do note that earlier in the meeting he had "emphasized LAM's responsibility as guardians of a cultural resource and his preference" to sell the works to the Getty.
Escalante says going to auction seemed a remote possibility at the time because it was believed that the Getty would buy the works. But he doesn't recall Desmarais forbidding an auction.
Desmarais counters that "from the moment I brought up the issue, there was heavy pressure to sell the works."
He says he doesn't recall whether he disputed Pearson's summary at that meeting.
"I could have been carefully correcting every word as it came out [in the minutes]," he says, "but I had no way to know that in the future we'd all be splitting hairs in this way. I insisted we not make any decision on what to do with these works until we had a clear collections policy."
But, he continues, Collection Committee meetings were dominated by its nonprofessional members.