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Bowers' new space conquest

Chinese art from several millenniums and photographs by Ansel Adams inaugurate a wing at the Santa Ana museum.

February 16, 2007|Scarlet Cheng | Special to The Times

SEVEN years ago, Anne Shih was visiting the Shanghai Museum, a stronghold of Chinese art and antiquities, when she tossed out a suggestion to Director Chen Xiejun: What about an exhibition loan to the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, where Shih is a board member? All right, she remembers Chen saying, if you can build a new space to house the show, we'll arrange it.

Today, not only is that new space built -- 30,000 square feet at a cost of $15 million -- but "Treasures From Shanghai: 5000 Years of Chinese Art and Culture" highlights its opening Sunday, the first day of the Chinese new year. A photography exhibition, "Ansel Adams: Classic Images," inaugurates a second gallery in the new wing.

On Main Street in Santa Ana, the Dorothy and Donald Kennedy wing spans half a block in glass, metal accents and a cladding of troweled plaster painted to match the existing architecture. The city opened the original Spanish-style museum in 1936 to feature Orange County history. In 1992, the Bowers reopened after an extensive remodeling that greatly expanded the facility, and it broadened its mission to showing a wide variety of art and artifacts. Bowers President Peter C. Keller pushed for the latest expansion, both to gain more exhibition space and to improve existing facilities. To pay for it, the museum obtained $4 million in state funding, with most of the remainder coming from private sources, including $2 million from benefactors Dorothy and Donald Kennedy. The latter is First American Corp. chairman emeritus and chairman of the Bowers' board of governors.

As of Sunday, museum admission, except for students, seniors and children younger than 5, will become uniformly $17 on weekdays and $19 on weekends -- eliminating a general admission fee of $5. The latter was only for viewing a few permanent collections anyway, says Keller. "We're trying to simplify matters," he adds.

The new wing was designed by Robert R. Coffee Architect + Associates of Newport Beach. "We wanted to use materials that were compatible and more or less carried forward what was done in the past," Coffee said during a walk-through of the space last week as workers were still adding display cases and other finishing touches. "There was an effort to give an updated image, that we're moving into a new century and the museum is making a great transition."

Changing entrance

Formerly, visitors entered the museum via a courtyard off a side street. Today, a steel and glass canopy announces the new entrance on Main Street, and several apertures signal the museum's contents to passersby. Art and artifacts can be glimpsed through the glass wall that flanks the long corridor leading from entry foyer to the new wing. Farther along, an outcropped display window exhibits an elaborately carved wooden sarcophagus from 19th century Indonesia.

At the end of the corridor is a central atrium -- a lofty 6,000 square feet that can be used for exhibitions as well as dinners and presentations -- and beyond that is an enclosed garden with wall-mounted fountains. Radiating off the atrium are two new galleries, which provide an additional 10,000 square feet of exhibition space, and an acoustically balanced auditorium with 300 seats. Mahogany floors -- "from certified sustainable sources," Coffee said -- were selected for their durability and warmth of tone in an otherwise crisp, minimalist interior.

Developing relationship

Chen Kelun, assistant director of the Shanghai Museum and curator of the Chinese exhibition, says his museum's relationship with the Bowers has been developing since 2000. Speaking by telephone recently from Shanghai, he mentioned an exchange program in which the Bowers sends Orange County high school students to visit the Shanghai Museum as part of their docent training.

Although the Shanghai Museum has often sent works to group shows -- including the Guggenheim Museum's blockbuster "China: 5,000 Years" in 1998 -- it has not had a solo show, so to speak, in the continental U.S. since the late '80s, when an exhibition titled "The Chinese Scholar's Studio" made several U.S. stops.

In 2002, the museum signed the agreement for the Bowers exhibition, in exchange for which the Santa Ana museum pays a fee. After the Shanghai show concludes, Chen Kelun will curate a permanent exhibition of Chinese art for the same space, but from the Bowers' own collection. (The Bowers also has an agreement with the British Museum to share expenses and income from shows from that London institution. "Mummies: Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt," on view through Dec. 31, is part of that arrangement.)

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