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ART

Finally Arriving at the Station

It's a year behind schedule, but the Santa Monica Museum at last has opening day in sight.

April 05, 1998|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Birds no longer fly through gaping holes in the Santa Monica Museum of Art's new home at Bergamot Station. The building not only has four walls and a roof, the main floor of the 10,000-square-foot space has been divided into a vast gallery with movable dividers, a book shop, an education room, a storage area and an office for membership and development. Additional offices are on the mezzanine overlooking the gallery.

Nothing is finished, but the warehouse-like structure's renovation--designed by the Los Angeles-based architecture firm of Narduli/Grinstein--is shaping up so well that the museum's board of trustees has scheduled an invitational celebratory hard-hat tour of the facility at 4 p.m. today. With a month to go before the public opening on May 9, it appears that the museum will soon be back in operation.

That's very good news for the museum's staff and supporters because it's happening a full year later than planned. Formerly located on Main Street, the museum closed its final exhibition there in April 1997, in anticipation of the move to Bergamot. But a legal battle over Bergamot's governance delayed construction of the museum's new facility, so the staff has been camping out in temporary quarters elsewhere in Santa Monica.

Bergamot Station--a complex of about 20 art galleries and related businesses developed by contemporary art dealer Wayne Blank, on industrial property owned by the City of Santa Monica--opened in 1994 and quickly became a destination for the art crowd. The project was partly financed by television producer and art collector Tom Patchett, who operates Track 16 gallery at Bergamot. But in 1996, Patchett sued Blank, the general partner, to dissolve their partnership, charging that he had misappropriated and commingled joint funds, and disregarded Patchett's rights as a limited partner.

Last summer, a court ruling dissolved the partnership but did not find Blank guilty of the charges and directed Patchett and Blank to work out a new management arrangement. In September they agreed that Blank would buy Patchett's interest in the complex for $1.5 million.

The protracted disagreement had little effect on galleries already established at Bergamot, but it stalled the development of an adjacent strip of property designated for the museum and additional galleries. But now the rusty, ramshackle buildings on that section of land have been transformed into neat enclosures that are being prepared for a new life.

Weary but pleased that the Santa Monica Museum of Art's transformation is finally coming to fruition, director Thomas Rhoads and board president Didi Dunphy say the delay was not all bad. They needed time to chart their course and raise money--an effort that has yielded more than $600,000 of a $1-million goal, to pay off debts, establish a cash reserve, provide bridge funding for the transition period, refurbish the building and finance operations. And they claim that they never lost faith.

"Didi and I are probably two of the most stubborn people on the face of the earth," Rhoads said. "We believed in what we were trying to do. We know the importance of this institution in advancing the careers of artists, and we know that this is a unique resource for Los Angeles. If you believe that, finally other people will come around, as they have."

The new space will be christened on May 7 with a gala benefit featuring a dinner, a silent auction and performances by artist Karen Finley and Grammy-winning musician Beck Hansen. Two inaugural exhibitions are planned: Liza Lou's monumental beaded environments, "Back Yard" and Kitchen," and "Beck & Al Hansen: Playing With Matches," a survey of mixed-media artworks that examines relationships between the work of Beck and his grandfather, Happenings/Fluxus artist Al Hansen.

Known for showing the work of emerging and mid-career artists, SMMA has helped to bridge the gap between Southern California's major museums and commercial galleries. But by the art world's definition, the Santa Monica Museum of Art is more art center than museum because it has no collection.

As the mission statement puts it, the institution is "an active laboratory that encourages artistic creativity and experimentation" as well as an exhibition hall. "Promoting the life of the imagination, highlighting the capacity of artists to redefine reality, taking risks, crossing boundaries, stimulating debate, provoking thought and celebrating creativity are core values."

Defining SMMA in simpler terms, Rhoads said, "We are a kunsthalle, dedicated to a changing exhibition schedule. The resources that a traditional museum gives to its collection, we try to give directly to artists for projects here and programs for education." The museum fulfills a regional niche by devoting 60% to 70% of its exhibitions to artists from Southern California, he said.

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