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O.C. Art Museum Merger, Right and Wrong

Commentary: Backers and opponents alike don't realize that it is adventurous exhibitions that create a 'buzz' and solid reputation.

August 13, 1996|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When I was small, a kid once accosted me on the school bus: Did I like the Dodgers or the Yankees? Having never considered the question before, I opted for the Dodgers because I liked the sound of their name. The kid promptly bashed me on the head with his metal lunch box.

This rather painful early experience with fervent partisanship certainly hasn't deterred me from taking sides in heated disputes. But I feel unable to fully support either the supporters of the new Orange County Museum of Art (the result of the merger of the Laguna and Newport Harbor Art Museums) or the Motivated Museum Members (the faction that is still fighting for an independent Laguna museum).

Each side has raised worthwhile issues. OCMA has emphasized the need for art institutions to operate more efficiently and economically. The MMM group has dramatized how important autonomous local institutions are to a community's sense of tradition and solidarity.

At the same time, each side has a blinkered and ill-conceived view of what an art museum should be and how it should function. Although these views are different, they falter essentially for the same reason: The people doing the talking are not museum professionals.

At MMM's Aug. 5 meeting in Newport Beach to vote on anti-merger resolutions, it was distressing to hear group members enthusiastically applaud speakers who advocated an all-volunteer staff and championed plein-air painting as the only form of art the museum should be showing.

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Running an art museum requires people with highly specific skills and areas of knowledge, from the history of art to methods of conservation, from fund-raising tactics to detailed knowledge of the styles and reputations of artists working all over the globe.

Although the local Impressionist school remains a popular favorite, museum professionals who expect to be taken seriously by their peers must continually expose the public to potentially unfamiliar styles and ideas.

OCMA, on the other hand, is dedicated to the premise that the county should have a "world-class" art museum presenting important traveling exhibitions as well as a significant, broad-based collection of its own.

Trustees have emphasized their interest in showing artists who are accessible and famous, to the point where a jaundiced observer might expect "King Tut Meets Monet" as the ultimate OCMA blockbuster. The avowed intention to place a greater emphasis on art education has become such a key theme that it threatens to be the tail that wags the dog.

None of this happy talk adds up to a distinctive artistic vision. And no wonder: It takes professionals' specialized knowledge to craft a museum's aesthetic goals.

Needless to say, setting and meeting such goals is of paramount importance. A museum that mounts poorly conceived shows is not a good museum, even if it demonstrates excellent management skills.

For all those who loudly proclaim museums of the '90s to be businesses, it must not be forgotten that the "product" is not a faster, cheaper widget but something intangible: a multitude of new thoughts and feelings gained by looking at works of art.

Unfortunately, the professional leadership of OCMA does not inspire confidence about its artistic vision.

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Naomi Vine, OCMA's director, is an art historian whose specialty is modern art. But a year after she arrived in Laguna Beach to take up her first museum directorship, it is hard to discern artistic leadership in her bottom-line-driven activities and pronouncements.

From her decision to stop giving free museum memberships to local artists to her gee-whiz remarks about art (whether she is talking about plein-air painting, Paul Outerbridge or schlockmeister Clive Barker, who was the subject of a museum show last summer), Vine cuts a strange figure as an art-world leader.

Although she has tried to ingratiate herself with peripheral local art groups (serving as a juror, for example, for an amateurish Orange County Visual Artists show), she seems curiously aloof from the genuine concerns of the various art communities the museum serves.

Even a lecture she gave on modern American painting earlier this year at Rancho Santiago College proved disappointing in its pat conclusions and oddly circumspect remarks about the Communist leanings of some of the artists.

The appointment of Bruce Guenther, chief curator at Newport Harbor since December 1991, to the same post at the merged museum was particularly bad news.

Guenther is known in the Southern California art world as the "one-stop shopper" because of his tendency to assemble exhibitions from the wares of a few commercial galleries rather than by the preferred method of painstakingly culling new work at artists' studios.

His main supporters seem to be museum trustees, who have said they like the way he explains art to them. But in any well-regarded museum, that job normally is secondary to the intellectual and creative curatorial role of conceiving and implementing new ways of looking at art.

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