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The Good Old Days Are Now

Curator William C. Agee left L.A. for greener pastures with the Pasadena Art Museum's demise. But he's back for his Sam Francis show, and amazed by the response.

April 11, 1999|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

"When I left in 1974, I didn't think Los Angeles could get something like this going," said William C. Agee, surveying the vast space at the Geffen Contemporary of the Museum of Contemporary Art, where the Sam Francis retrospective he organized is attracting critical praise and crowds of appreciative visitors.

An independent curator who teaches Modern and Contemporary art history at Hunter College in New York, Agee watched with amazement when about 3,500 people turned out for the opening festivities of "Sam Francis: Paintings 1947-1990." Wandering through the galleries, they perused about 90 examples of the artist's abstractions--ranging from small, dark meditations on landscape to enormous white canvases splashed with vivid color.

Agee did another double take on a recent Sunday afternoon, when his informal talk on the show drew about 100 eager listeners. Nearly an hour after the event had officially ended, several people still clustered around him, chatting and asking questions, while others requested his autograph on their exhibition catalogs. In the early '70s, when he lived in L.A., a similar curator's talk would have brought a handful of people, at best, he said, shaking his head in astonishment.

Agee, 62, hasn't been in a New York vacuum for the past 25 years. Indeed, he has made many trips to Los Angeles during the last few years while arranging the Francis retrospective. But he can't get over how much the local art scene has changed since his departure. And he has a good reason.

No ordinary guest curator, Agee was the last director of the ill-fated, under-funded Pasadena Art Museum. He moved on to a far more promising position as director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in 1974, shortly before industrialist and collector Norton Simon took charge of the Pasadena institution--along with its art collection and $1.5-million debt.

Simon transformed the museum into an elegant showcase for his own collection of European and Asian art, and--to a lesser degree--the Modern and Contemporary holdings he acquired from the defunct institution. While the Norton Simon Museum has long since become a major cultural asset, the demise of its predecessor still dredges up painful memories for those who tried to keep it afloat.

"The trustees had built a building they couldn't afford. It was as simple as that," Agee said, recalling his stressful years at the Pasadena Art Museum. "They couldn't maintain it or pay off the mortgage."

A Princeton- and Yale-educated scholar who held curatorial positions at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York during the late 1960s, he came to Pasadena in 1970 as director of exhibitions and collections, a few months after the museum had moved from its longtime home in a Chinese-style building on Los Robles Avenue to the sleek new facility on Colorado Boulevard.

"With the opening grand galas and all, they had run up enormous expenses," Agee said. The museum's administration was also in trouble. After the loss of three directors--Thomas Leavitt, Walter Hopps and James Demetrion--in a six-year period, Thomas G. Turbell, a local banker and vice chairman of the museum's board of trustees, had been drafted as acting chief. "That situation wasn't working out, so I reluctantly became director," said Agee, who took charge seven months after his arrival.

"I didn't understand fully what I was getting into," he said. "I was young--at 34, I think I was one of the youngest museum directors ever--and I didn't know the questions to ask. But also, it was the end of the go-go '60s when all things were possible. If you asked about money, the response was, 'What's that? Don't worry; we'll raise it.' So there were rude surprises.

"Within a year or so of the opening, it was clear that the museum was just going to sink. So we went into a hunkered-down mode, just to meet the payroll. There simply was no money. We had to find a size where we could operate. I think we were running the museum on about $450,000 a year, with the help of an enormous number of volunteers, primarily drawn from the Pasadena Art Alliance. I just plain told them, 'Look, if the bookstore volunteers don't show up, we don't have a bookstore.' "

The situation called for drastic changes, he said. "I had this idea that we could back moving trucks up to the museum, load the collection into the trucks and move across the street to an old El Rancho supermarket. If we couldn't afford the building we had, we should have given it up and done something we could afford. But no one else took that idea seriously."

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