YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Looking Ahead by Looking Back

The Long Beach Museum of Art adjusts its contemporary focus, showcasing antique decorative arts.

September 28, 1997|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Crossing the threshold of Victor Gail and Dick Oxford's neat little house in the Belmont Shore district of Long Beach is akin to stepping back into American history. From the gleaming wood cabinets, desks and tables they use every day to the comfortable upholstered chairs where they sit and chat with visitors to the paintings and needlework displayed on walls, the immaculately maintained residence is filled with museum-quality examples of furnishings and artworks found in American homes more than 100 years ago.

Entering the Long Beach Museum of Art's small exhibition of about 25 pieces from the Gail Oxford Collection, as the collectors call it, is also a bit of a shock. While the museum is lodged in a historic building and exhibitions of fine decorative arts are fairly standard museum fare, this particular institution is best known for its avant-garde video programs and exhibitions of contemporary art.

For this show, museum director Harold B. Nelson has selected objects that represent the earliest period of the collection, largely from the 17th and early 18th centuries, and he included some items made in Europe but commonly exported to America. Installed in a room with mustard walls and accompanied by educational text, the assembly of furniture, ceramics, pewter ware and needlepoint provides an abrupt change of pace from the video viewing room on one side and the 50-year survey of Southern California ceramics on the other.

Called "Bountiful Harvest: American Decorative Arts From the Gail Oxford Collection," the exhibition is more than an aberration. It announces a new dimension in the museum's program. While introducing the little-known local collection to the public, the show also launches a planned series of annual exhibitions from the Gail Oxford holdings and lets it be known that the bulk of the collection eventually may be donated to the Long Beach museum.

The collectors cheerfully acknowledge this tentative plan. But, for the moment, they are simply enjoying a bit of limelight as the story of their acquisitive success becomes known. "Had we lived on the East Coast, this never would have happened," Oxford says with a sly smile. "There would have been too much competition."

No kidding. While they have scoured antique shops and shows across the country during some 30 years of collecting, they have found most of their treasures in and around Long Beach, where they have lived for 50 years. Now retired--Gail was a program coordinator for American Borax and Oxford was a surveyor--they are men of relatively modest means who can't afford to throw money around at highly publicized auctions. When something great comes along, they have to sell something from the collection to buy it, Gail says.

But this is not a case of investment collecting. "I've always bought what I liked and what fits in here," Gail says. Indeed, he and Oxford are so at home with their collection, they had to empty the socks, underwear and sweaters out of an elegant high chest of drawers, made in New York around 1690-1720, to loan it to the museum. Three other early 18th century pieces in the exhibition--a walnut and white pine desk from Boston, a maple couch from Philadelphia and a cherry, pine and chestnut trestle-based hutch table, probably from Connecticut--were removed from the den.

But accustomed as they are to inhabiting a veritable museum, the collectors didn't grow up with fine antiques. "We were lucky if we had a chair to sit on, both of us," Oxford says.

Now numbering about 350 pieces, the collection began in the 1960s with Gail's passion for antiques and his sharp eye for quality. He remains the guiding light, but Oxford has become very knowledgeable too, and--as a 12th-generation American who knows his family history--he feels a strong connection to the objects in his domestic environment.

But Gail is the primary sleuth, and he loves to tell stories about discovering fabulous furniture on the streets of Long Beach. "The first thing I acquired was completely accidental," he says of a Massachusetts cherry wood high boy chest in Tom's bedroom. "I was driving on Broadway, and I saw a young fellow who was opening an antique shop. He was carrying the chest into the store and I thought, 'Oh boy, that looks good. Better stop the car.' "

The fledgling shopkeeper had inherited his stock. He didn't know the value of what he had and only wanted to get rid of it, so he was pleased to snag a customer.

As a precaution, Gail took a drawer from the towering chest to Tom Potter, an established dealer in Long Beach, who advised Gail to grab the chest. "The price was only $750, but I had to borrow money to buy it," Gail says--with no regrets.

Los Angeles Times Articles