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Bent on a cultural angle

Advocates wanted a new museum in the mix for Claremont's downtown expansion. An abandoned packing house proved to be just the place.

March 18, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

FOR as long as most Claremont old-timers can remember, the College Heights Lemon Packing House has been a fixture on First Street. Built along the railroad tracks in 1922, the corrugated metal structure was designed to store and pack huge quantities of fruit. With vast open spaces, iron trusses, saw-tooth skylights and a 400-foot loading dock, the building served its intended purpose for half a century. But as citrus groves gave way to urban sprawl, it became a symbol of the town's history, one that eventually fell into disrepair and was slated for demolition.

But things change, even in this quiet college town where cozy homes nestle on tree-lined streets and the old-fashioned downtown business district, known as the Village, has survived the arrival of Starbucks. The packing house is being revived amid an expansion project that will transform the Village and double its size. New construction will give downtown a hotel, a multiplex theater and lots of shops, but the heart of the project is the refurbished packing house.

It's a victory for Claremont preservationists, but it's also a badge of honor for art aficionados and community-minded citizens who are seeing their dream of an art museum become a reality. When the old industrial building begins its new life, it will house an entire community of cultural and commercial enterprises -- including the Claremont Museum of Art.

The museum will open April 15 with "A Conversation With Color: Karl Benjamin, Paintings 1953-1995," a retrospective of 46 works by an internationally renowned, Claremont-based maker of hard-edge abstractions. A smaller show, "Building a Legacy: Founding a Museum, Building a Collection," will present examples of donated artworks, making the point that the fledgling museum is a collecting institution as well as a showcase. Millard Sheets, James Fuller, Jean Ames, Harrison McIntosh, Milford Zornes and Roland Reiss are among the artists represented.

In packing-house terms, the museum's space is small -- a mere 7,400 square feet including a shop, offices and basement storage. Lodged in the southwest corner of the building, the museum will share a roof with restaurants, a jazz club, a wine bar, a book store, a vendor of fresh fruit bouquets, artists' live-work spaces and the Claremont Forum, a community group that supports charitable causes, offers classes and presents public events.

But the museum's mission -- "a regional museum of international significance" -- is more expansive than its size might indicate. Artists who have taught or studied at the Claremont colleges or lived in the area will provide a continuing source of material for exhibitions, both historical and up-to-the minute. Samplings of rarely exhibited collections held by the colleges also will appear from time to time. But the museum has no formal affiliation with the colleges. It's free to chart its own course -- in many directions.

"This could be a lot of fun," says Director William Moreno, envisioning an adventurous, ethnically diverse program. A native of Montebello, he spent the first 12 years of his career in financial services, then established an art consulting business and directed the Aguirre Gallery in San Mateo. He was director of the Mexican Museum in San Francisco for three years before returning to Southern California, attracted by Los Angeles' vibrant art scene as well as the opportunity to start something new in Claremont. Moreno says the museum will build upon local artistic tradition but reach well beyond regional boundaries.

"What everybody doesn't want," says John D. Maguire, president emeritus of Claremont Graduate University and advisor to the museum's board of trustees, "is a mausoleum of old Claremont artists, a dead poets society. We want the museum to be edgy, international in outlook and really alive, to set it apart from other little civic or regional museums."

The building provides "the cool factor," says Steve Comba, assistant director and registrar of the Pomona College Museum of Art, who has advised the new museum's founders and organized the inaugural shows. "It's a classic remodeled space, so raw and industrial. For things that are refined, it exaggerates their refinement. The environment also enhances things that are lab-based or experimental."

The program is a work in progress, a position for a contemporary art curator has yet to be filled and the space is still under construction. Even so, a big red-and-black sign splashed across the upper west side of the building -- in clear view of Metrolink riders -- proclaims the Claremont Museum of Art.

"This has been a gleam in the eye of some Claremonters for a full 20 years," Maguire says. "It's a remarkable story of core citizens never losing their dream and a series of circumstances that allowed us to move forward."

Village expansion as catalyst

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