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Once-Ailing Laguna Museum Paints a Rosy Future for Itself

January 11, 2002|VIVIAN LETRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five years after a bitter merger attempt, the Laguna Art Museum has emerged as a survivor: It has rebuilt its fiscal strength, heightened its artistic profile and has begun planning a new look designed to make the best of its seaside location.

"Some of our sponsors fell off, and it's taken a while before we've been able to rebuild it," LAM director Bolton Colburn said. "A lot of it has to do with a renewed community support for the institution where a lot of that had dropped away during the merger ordeal."

In 1996, the Laguna museum had to make a tough decision: Face insolvency or merge with the Newport Harbor Art Museum. The merger called for LAM to transfer its collections, raze its building and forsake its name to become part of a new entity, the Orange County Museum of Art.

Angered LAM members intervened with lawsuits, and Laguna broke away to operate independently, though it continues to share a 3,800-piece collection with OCMA. The museums also settled on an equal division of a $2-million endowment.

LAM retained its name, its historic site on the bluffs along Pacific Coast Highway and its independence--it is one of three prominent visual arts institutions in the county along with the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana and OCMA. Yet its operating budget in 1997 was only $229,000.

Today, its financial outlook is stronger. Its endowment is $1.2 million and its operating budget is $1.3 million (OCMA's is nearly triple that). And LAM has made strides in reducing its deficit from a recent high of $169,300 for fiscal year 1999-2000, to $67,000 in 2000-01, the latest figures released by the museum.

Still in the Red,

but Gaining Strength

"We've been going in the red because we were extremely conservative in the first couple of years to build up our coffers. We took a hit for a couple of years, but we expected that as part of our growth, to reestablish our programs and exhibitions schedule," said Colburn, who started with the museum as a curator and stepped up as director after the merger.

Despite its modest means today, the museum has managed to reassert itself. It has 1,700 members and hosts 30,000 visitors each year. In July 2000, its permanent collection was doubled with a gift of 517 works by Peter Krasnow, making it the primary repository of works by this Los Angeles Modernist. San Fernando Valley-based collectors Stuart and Judy Spence gave the museum 109 works by California contemporary artists in May 1999. The same year, Santa Monica-based collectors Peter and Eileen Norton donated 124 works by young California artists, in a nationwide dispersal of part of their holdings.

According to Colburn, the 1999 hiring of exhibitions curator Tyler Stallings, a CalArts graduate and former curator of the Huntington Beach Art Center, has been a key factor in heightening the museum's artistic profile, creating shows that have received favorable reviews and increased attendance.

"Presence Control," a site-specific 2001 installation by artist Stephen Hendee brought to the museum by Stallings, was described by Times art critic Christopher Knight as "savvy, modest, quietly engaging ... [offering] surprising satisfactions." Sandow Birk's 2000 show "In Smog and Thunder: Historical Works From the Great War of the Californias," curated by Stallings for LAM, was called "thoroughly calculated and terrifically amusing," by Leah Ollman, writing for The Times.

Last year, Stallings received a $50,000 grant from the Fellows of Contemporary Art, a Los Angeles-based independent support organization that offers annual funding for exhibitions focused on California art. It will be used for a 2003 exhibition on themes of race and identity and will include works by Chris Burden, Tom of Finland, Tran Trang, Mike Kelley, Barbara Kruger and Ruben Ortiz Torres.

Stallings is the fourth Fellows grant recipient from the Laguna Art Museum--the most from any museum in California, according to Merry Scully, the organization's former administrative director.

LAM has also picked up support from Hollywood celebrities. Leonardo DiCaprio underwrote an exhibit on painter-sculptor Stanislav Szukalski in 2000.

On Feb. 9, the museum will host "Art for AIDS--A Tribute to Rock Hudson," a charity fund-raiser event with Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson. Proceeds will be shared, and organizers hope to raise $50,000 for the museum.

Such fund-raisers--up to four from three per year--and an estimated $50,000 increase in donor contributions in fiscal year 2000-01 (such contributions had been flat at $136,000 for the two prior years) are expected to further ease the museum's deficit. LAM also expects to receive $80,000 in revenues from a citywide hotel bed tax, approved last year by Laguna Beach to support the arts.

Plans to Renovate,

Expand Its Building

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