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More Than a Face-Lift

The Palm Springs Desert Museum hopes to put its country club image to rest with its 6.5-million expansion and renovation.

November 03, 1996|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

PALM SPRINGS — Gazing at the Palm Springs Desert Museum from the front sidewalk, you would never guess that a $6.5-million, 20,000-square-foot expansion and renovation project is going on inside the 20-year-old building. If you cross the street and take a longer view, you get a clue from concrete slabs discreetly rising behind the concrete and volcanic cinder facade. But even if you check out the museum from the side and back, where all the action is, you may have difficulty distinguishing the new addition from the old structure.

It's only when you enter the lobby that the changes that will open to the public on Nov. 13 begin to reveal themselves.

The wall and gift shop that once stood behind the ticket and information counter have been removed to expose a light-filled atrium. It rises past a mezzanine displaying contemporary sculpture and pre-Columbian objects, up to a second floor divided into six galleries for modern and contemporary art. The galleries are new, but the other display areas are dramatic transformations. The airy central space has turned a former outdoor sculpture court into a 37-foot-high gallery with a curved skylight. The mezzanine gives new public life to a former service area.

"For me, what's most successful is the expanse of space from here," museum Director Janice Lyle said, standing on the mezzanine near the elevator. "I love to see all the vistas and different levels and look into the new galleries."

It's a striking view--indeed, a stunning one for those who have known the museum in its more limited form--but Lyle's favorite vantage point does not offer a complete picture of the museum's renovation and expansion. Two new storage vaults are nestled out of sight behind the galleries. Doors in the back of the central galleries lead to a new 90-seat theater that descends to a lower level. Below the theater are four new children's classrooms, two for art and two for natural science.

Much of the museum's old art gallery space has been reconfigured too, making way for a cafe, an enlarged book and gift shop and new installations of Native American objects and traditional Western art. Spaces devoted to natural history also have been refurbished. About the only unchanged aspects of the museum's interior are the temporary exhibitions galleries and the 450-seat Annenberg Theater, and even those have new carpeting.

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The project began in 1993 with the first installment of a gift of 132 contemporary American artworks and a donation from Steve Chase, an interior designer and longtime museum patron who died March 27, 1994. He had collected art for many years, shifting his focus from New York to California art to coordinate his holdings with the museum's fledgling collection and frequently making purchases in consultation with museum curator Katherine Plake Hough.

When Chase decided to make a large donation of artworks to the museum, he also gave the museum $1.5 million to help build a place to display it. Fortunately, he attached no strings to the gift, Hough said. That has allowed maximum flexibility in mingling his artworks with works from other sources.

Only about 30 of the 110 modern and contemporary pieces on view came from Chase, but his gifts are some of the largest and best pieces, she said. Among his donations are paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, Sam Francis, Joan Brown, Nancy Graves and Billy Al Bengston and sculptures by Tom Holland, John Buck, Italo Scanga, Robert Graham and Therman Statom.

Chase's patronage is the spark behind the museum's new section, called the Steve Chase Art Wing and Education Center. But his support also kicked off a much larger project than he had envisioned, Lyle said. While he was acutely aware of the museum's need for additional gallery space, she and other staff members saw equally pressing needs for education facilities and improvements in storage, lighting, security, air conditioning and carpeting. "We decided to put it all together in a single package," she said.

In 1994, the museum launched a $10-million capital campaign. About $8.2 million has been raised so far--more than enough for the construction but not as much as desired to boost the endowment.

Museum members and other visitors will see where most of the money has gone during a series of previews leading up to and immediately after the public opening. Festivities will begin Friday with an invitational black-tie reception for donors. The final event, Nov. 16, is a free community block party.

"We're inviting the entire Coachella Valley to celebrate with us," Lyle said.

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