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This Redo Involves Breaking Some Eggs

The Craft and Folk Art Museum's new director, a marketing specialist, is determined to bring back the crowds--as well as the Egg and the Eye restaurant.

March 02, 1997|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

An ominous sign hangs on a Wilshire Boulevard building occupied by the Craft and Folk Art Museum: "Available 11,000 sf. + parking lot."

The museum is not folding up. CAFAM owns its main building next door to the leased annex, plus a nearby duplex and cottage. But the real estate sign is a sad symbol of problems facing the venerable institution as it struggles to revitalize itself.

Established in 1965 by Edith Wyle as the Egg and the Eye, the museum and its popular restaurant prospered for more than 20 years, then faded from public view during a lengthy period of construction. The $5.5-million expansion, renovation and earthquake retrofitting project opened in June 1995, but by then the museum was nearly bankrupt. When opening festivities were over, CAFAM never recovered its audience--much less gained the additional support it needed. One obvious problem is that the restaurant, which brought many people to the museum, did not reopen as planned.

But now CAFAM is under the direction of Paul Kusserow, an energetic marketing expert who's determined to give the museum a sharp, inviting profile--with the help of popular exhibitions and a new restaurant--and bring in the crowds.

"The bones of this institution are very strong," he said. "It's just waiting to be filled up with good material. What we need to do is focus more narrowly on the mission. We are here to do one thing: superlative exhibitions. Art is our mission. We are here to excite people about folk art and craft. All other things should follow after that."

Even as he spoke, two exhibitions were being installed. "I Once Was Lost: The Spiritual Found in Folk Art," featuring more than 100 pieces from the House of Blues' immense collection, mostly by African American artists from the region around New Orleans, opened last week and continues through May. "Spirit of India: Painted Prayers and Epic Stories," a show of Indian women's devotional paintings from the Mingei Museum of International Folk Art in San Diego and photographs by Stephen Huyler, opens Friday and runs through June.

In taking the helm at CAFAM, Kusserow succeeds Patrick H. Ela, who resigned last April, ending a 21-year tenure. Ela presided over a flush period in the 1980s, when an ambitious expansion was planned, followed by painful cutbacks when the developer failed to get funding and--like many arts organizations--the museum had increasing difficulty in gaining financial support.

Kusserow, a native of Vermont, is a Rhodes scholar with a bachelor's degree in religion and a master's in English literature. He planned to be a journalist but veered into the marketing side of publishing and nonprofit organizations after working as a management consultant in the late 1980s at McKinsey & Co. in Los Angeles. He became an associate director involved in marketing for both the National Geographic Society in Washington and the Reader's Digest Assn. in New York before serving as director of planning and marketing for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, his most recent position.

"At Colonial Williamsburg, we started a consulting practice to nonprofits," Kusserow said. "A lot of places are struggling. What I found is, it's a new game. The question is, how do you play it? This place, and nonprofits in general, often need people who have experience in the for-profit world to help them, especially in reshaping." At CAFAM, Kusserow has taken charge of an organization with an annual budget of about $1.2 million, a 14-member staff, a membership that has dwindled to 1,000 and a board of 23 trustees. Frank Wyle is chairman of the board. His wife, museum founder Edith Wyle, keeps in close touch with the institution but does not shape programs or policies. "I couldn't ask for two better people," Kusserow said. "They are very supportive, and they know this is going to take a while."

The new director's first priority is to secure a new lease on all or part of the building at the corner of Curson Street and Wilshire Boulevard. Offices and a library that occupy upper floors could be relocated in the museum's additional property when the current lease expires in September. But the gallery space on the first floor is essential to the museum's program, he said.

He also plans to reopen the restaurant, the Egg and the Eye, in the summer. "We have a wonderful young restaurateur," said Kusserow, who declined to name the individual until a contract is signed. Offering a few items from the old menu along with new dishes, the restaurant is expected to bring in much needed revenue, and to attract the public to the museum's exhibitions and shop.

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