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Room for Another Museum?

'Experiential' Project Would Show Contemporary Works


SANTA ANA — Ready to hear about yet another art museum plan for Orange County?

But wait. Unlike the newly formed Orange County Museum of Art (the controversial combination of the former Laguna and Newport Harbor Art Museums), the proposed Museum and Institute of Contemporary Art (MICA) hasn't been concocted by corporate types doing secret deals.

Envisioned as an institution in downtown Santa Ana's fledgling arts district and devoted exclusively to contemporary art, it has been nurtured by a symbiotic arrangement between the worlds of art and real estate.

"I know we're going up against strong monetary odds," says Daniel Arvizu, owner of Artegeo Gallery in Santa Ana and the prime mover behind the plan. Shrinking financial resources are said to be the biggest reason for the Newport-Laguna consolidation; Arvizu knows that.

But he is nonetheless hopeful. Indeed, he thinks he can assemble a pool of private donors from the many who have been upset by the merger. And things already are starting to happen.

Arvizu is one of a tiny group of art-world people who banded together in January as a nonprofit corporation--Arts District Development (ADD) Corp.--having conceived of a museum that would show work of international caliber produced since 1970. The new museum would be housed in the 18,000-square-foot Float Building on 2nd Street, between Main and Bush.

Actually, there are many hurdles to jump before the museum's doors would open (possibly next year, but more likely in 1998). But the idea is sound. A contemporary art museum not only could be the catalyst to prove the worth of an arts district to Santa Ana residents and visitors alike; it also stands to dramatically enliven the county's lackluster art scene.


Many organizational aspects of the museum are to be resolved in the next few months, including staffing and programming. ADD Corp. has real estate and architecture advisors on its team. But it also needs widely recognized and respected art-world people willing to lend credibility to the project as artistic advisors.

Even at this formative stage, however, the museum plan has several things going for it, including a slogan that sums up its supporters' belief in the ability of art to speak for itself: "This museum is not an explanation; it's an experience."

The slogan means that "people would have the experience of works of art first," says ADD Corp. member Phyllis Lutjeans. "Explanatory material would be available in a different area [of the museum]."

Although it hasn't been fully worked out, this concept is most unusual. It's contrary to contemporary museum practice and notably at odds with the increased emphasis on didactic material alongside the art in recent Laguna Art Museum exhibitions.

ADD Corp. member Dorrit Rawlins, curator of the Irvine Fine Art Center, explains that education at the museum would emphasize lively interaction by visitors responding to high-tech media or to the presence of a leading artist living temporarily on-site, rather than to "a lot of verbiage" or docent lectures.

ADD Corp.'s only members are Arvizu, Rawlins, Orange artist Jennifer Plessinger and Lutjeans, whose decades of art involvement in Orange County have included stints at Newport Harbor, the UC Irvine Fine Arts Gallery and TLK Gallery in Costa Mesa. By next month, the group hopes to have solicited more, including representatives of the business and Latino communities.

"We're being very cautious," Rawlins says. "The mistake is just tagging someone because he or she might have money. The board needs to be philosophically inclined to our [open-ended] direction."

MICA's brief mission statement includes the phrase "acquisition of art." But Arvizu acknowledges that it is extremely costly to build important collections of contemporary work and says his group is considering a time-honored alternative route: a Kunsthalle (art hall) displaying rotating exhibitions but not owning any of the art it shows.

Examples include the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, which is specifically dedicated to experimental approaches to art and ideas, and which Arvizu cites as a model.

As a full-fledged museum, the museum could be a true focal point for visitors to the proposed eight-block arts district, which so far consists only of the Santora Building, a complex of studios and galleries.


Some have said the relocation this fall of the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, from a business park on the Costa Mesa border to the renovated Parker Garage building, will create a fulcrum for the area. But the membership of the artists' cooperative is too limited, unexciting and unknown to the public and the art crowd alike.

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