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Museum painted into a corner?

The Orange County Museum of Art's sale of 18 California Impressionist paintings from the early 1900s raises eyebrows, and hackles, in art circles.

July 05, 2009|Mike Boehm

The Orange County Museum of Art was tooling along, a sporty little contender in the contemporary art world, its reputation sparkling from the good reviews its exhibitions consistently have earned in Southern California and across the nation.

And then, suddenly, it got splashed with grime. At least that's how some critics see it, although museum director Dennis Szakacs insists there was nothing blameworthy in OCMA's sale of 18 California Impressionist paintings from the early 1900s. A private collector, whose name the museum won't divulge, bought the pieces in March for $963,000, a price many experts think was about half what the museum should have gotten.

The transaction, approved unanimously by OCMA's board, has put the Newport Beach museum in the cross hairs of one of the art world's many controversies over "deaccessioning," the term for when a museum sells art from its collection.

Until June 15, when The Times first reported the sale, OCMA was known primarily for projecting a long reach for a small museum. Eight exhibitions launched from its hidden-away, nondescript quarters on a side street -- or organized in collaboration with others -- had toured 24 cities since Szakacs' arrival in 2003 from New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art. OCMA's curatorial brainchildren went to Philadelphia, New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago, Houston and lower Manhattan.

Under Szakacs, "they have done as fine work as they have done in their history, and have garnered national attention again," said Paul Schimmel, chief curator of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art. Schimmel helped write an admired chapter in OCMA's history as its curator during the 1980s, when it was known as the Newport Harbor Art Museum. "I think highly of what they've been doing, and I did not think that 10 years ago," he said.

OCMA, which traces its origins to a grass-roots, harbor-side gallery established in 1962, lost momentum when a $50-million expansion plan died in 1992, and a financially motivated merger with the Laguna Art Museum turned bitter in 1996. Szakacs brought stability and focus after years of curatorial vacancies and the 2001 death of museum director Naomi Vine. Now, in a fallen economy, OCMA has had to pull back. It has suspended a campaign to fund a new building in a far more prominent spot next to the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. Two years after peaking at $5.1 million, the budget has been shaved to $3.6 million, and the exhibition schedule has been halved to five a year. But the museum continues to run deficit-free, said Szakacs (pronounced Sake-us), still thinks big and plans to spend a record $800,000 to mount next year's highly anticipated "Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series."

It's also in a good position to buy art, after the nearly $1-million infusion from the sale of the 18 paintings. The proceeds will go for acquisitions of the post-1950 works that have been OCMA's sole focus since 2005. But the private nature of the transaction has brought criticism and speculation that the museum must have something to hide.

Critics say OCMA, by quietly selling the paintings, denied other museums a chance to bid -- and perhaps didn't get as much money as it could have.

The Assn. of Art Museum Directors, a leading professional group, doesn't condemn private sales, but its three "preferred methods" all preserve at least a chance of keeping works in the public realm: striking a deal with another museum, selling at auction or selling to a reputable art dealer. The voluntary guidelines advise that "the process be publicly transparent."

After The Times was tipped about the sale, an unusual thing happened: Museum directors, typically allergic to controversy, sounded off, politely but firmly, against what Szakacs and the OCMA board had done. Bolton Colburn of the Laguna Art Museum and Jean Stern of the Irvine Museum said they should have been given a chance to rustle up the cash to buy the 18 works. Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, opined that OCMA had been "uncollegial" toward its two neighbors, especially Laguna.

The paintings were part of that town's "patrimony," Davies noted, because they dated from its beginnings as an art colony, and most had been in the Laguna Art Museum's collection for decades. But in 1996, a financially driven merger with the Newport Harbor Art Museum transferred the Laguna collection to the newly launched entity, OCMA. The union quickly came undone, amid lawsuits and outrage from Laguna residents, who felt their museum had been stolen. The merged collections were shared under a negotiated settlement until 2004, when Szakacs says he sought to end lingering tensions by sending more than 3,000 works back to Laguna. The 18 California Impressionists were not included.

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