LAGUNA BEACH — A hardy strain of Midwestern humor flavors the speech of Mark Chamberlain, the lanky, Iowa-bred proprietor of BC Space, a photography gallery and studio.
That down-home philosophy has served him well as a member of Motivated Museum Members, the feisty group that opposes the merger of the Laguna and Newport Harbor art museums and is still pursuing the ouster of the Laguna museum's 22 trustees after its membership narrowly endorsed the merger recently.
Chatting with Chamberlain in his favorite American-style Chinese restaurant, a visitor hears a measured view that's at odds with the often-shrill debate over the museum's future.
MMM has been accused of being a bunch of malcontents who didn't even belong to the museum when the merger was announced. But Chamberlain perceives the situation differently.
"I look at it as a family feud," he said of the long history of waxing and waning local interest in the 78-year-old museum. "People get involved, then, when there's a change in orientation, they [drift away]. They assume [the museum] will always be there.
"But when it's in danger, people come back. It's not a family feud anymore; now they're dealing with aliens tipping over the outhouse. . . . There was a tremendous outpouring of interest from people who've been dormant for years.
"I've been drawing a lot of comparisons to my father's relationship with the [Episcopal] Church. It's an entity that serves souls, yet the [parishioners] would feud among themselves all the time" about whether the church was too liberal or conservative. "But if the organ fell out of repair, they'd all come back together."
Chamberlain, who has lived in town since 1969, says that the one reason for the diminished ranks of Laguna Beach members just prior to the merger announcement was the fallout of a change in the museum's attitude toward local artists.
Many of them had been accustomed to receiving complimentary $35 memberships in return for their donations of work--later sold for many times the membership fee--to the annual art auction benefiting museum programs.
When museum director Naomi Vine sent out letters late last year explaining that it was too costly for the museum to keep offering such memberships, "in one fell swoop she eliminated at least 100 artists" from the museum's roster, Chamberlain said.
Chamberlain, who holds a master's degree in business administration from the University of Iowa, characterizes such actions as all too typical of a bottom-line mentality that fails to comprehend the human factor underlying museum support.
In the past, he said, every year someone would add a handwritten note thanking him for his donation of art to the letter reinstating his membership.
"That's why I continued to be involved," he said. "Because of the fact there was a person who took the time to write."
Likening the merger to "a shotgun marriage that could possibly end in a divorce five years from now," Chamberlain asks why the merger planners didn't organize a more leisurely period of courtship, during which they could familiarize themselves with the history and culture of the Laguna museum and gain museum members' trust.
Even though the merger grants the Laguna Museum Heritage Corp. nearly complete control over the 3,800-piece collection and veto power over future sales of art work, Chamberlain points out that the museum-turned-satellite does not have the ability to acquire work of its own. Nor does it get to retain the proceeds of the collection's photographs by Paul Outerbridge that were sold last month for $938,200 at Christie's in New York.
Echoing his fellow MMM members' dismay at the secrecy of the merger efforts, Chamberlain says the deal was accomplished through "alienation" of Laguna Beach's culture and constituency.
He decries the way the merger was "dumped on the community as if there was nothing [else] the community could do to support the museum" and keep it autonomous.
The merger was accomplished primarily by instilling fear among museum members, he says--"fear that the museum would collapse, fear that funding sources could not sustain an [autonomous] museum, fear that the opposition couldn't win."
Chamberlain, whose father owned an insurance company in Dubuque back in the days when, he says, "they insured only against unforeseen catastrophe," sees the merger's approval as capitulation to fear of the unknown, part of a climate in which people seem to need guarantees for every aspect of life.
"We end up with less," he said, "because we're so afraid."
He believes that, even if the merger is approved by California's attorney general (and if MMM does not succeed in blocking it with a legal challenge), the satellite museum will be doomed anyway.
"I don't think people who fought so hard will want to participate in an entity with authority coming from elsewhere," he said. "So it has failure written into it. . . . The community feels betrayed, particularly in the context of the Outerbridge photographs."