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OCMA director won't keep art-buyer's identity secret from other museums

June 19, 2009 |  4:43 pm

Szakacs If you want to know who the private collector was who got what many consider a great deal on 18 California Impressionist paintings from the Orange County Museum of Art, just ask Dennis Szakacs, OCMA’s director.

That is, as long as you are one of his fellow museum professionals and have an interest in borrowing some of the early 20th-century works for an exhibition, or in cultivating as a philanthropic patron somebody who could afford the $963,000 outlay for the paintings, and is described by Szakacs as a champion of the popular style that’s also often called plein-air painting.

“The person’s identity is going to be known within the museum community,” even though OCMA has promised not to divulge it to the general public, said Szakacs, who called The Times from Venice, Italy, on Thursday. If another museum asks, he added, “I would absolutely direct them to the collector, and I would make that introduction, and help facilitate that loan ... or give any other museum an opportunity to cultivate this person, build a relationship with them, invite them to be on their board. All these opportunities are available to anyone in the [museum] community.”

Szakacs made it clear that he’s stung by what he feels is unfair criticism from several museum directors, among others, that OCMA acted without the museum community’s and the art-viewing public’s interests in mind. The Newport Beach museum quietly sold the paintings to the collector without giving other institutions a chance at them.

BoltonColburn Especially unhappy was the Laguna Art Museum, and its director, Bolton Colburn: The paintings had belonged to the museum, most of them donated decades before by the artists or their family and friends, until a contentious 1996 merger that led to the paintings’ transfer to OCMA.

Before OCMA had decided to sell the paintings, Szakacs said, he tried to approach Colburn in January about a possible deal that could have landed some or all the works back in Laguna.

In a conversation with Mark Bergendahl, an investment executive who is on the Laguna Art Museum’s board and who also donates to OCMA, Szakacs said he broached the idea of OCMA trading the earlier plein-air paintings for some of Laguna’s contemporary holdings (since 2005, post-1950 art has been OCMA’s sole focus). Bergendahl told Szakacs he would see about setting up a meeting between Szakacs and Colburn. Szakacs said he heard nothing further from the Laguna museum, and “we figured there wasn’t any interest or concern there, so we moved forward with the sale” of the 18 paintings.

Colburn says he learned that OCMA was interested in trading for abstract classicist works, including paintings by John McLaughlin, a noted artist who lived in Dana Point.

Bergendahl says Colburn’s counter-proposal was to ask OCMA to donate its California Impressionists to the Laguna museum, or send them as a long-term loan.

In an e-mail Friday, Bergendahl said that a week after their initial conversation, he called Szakacs but never got to tell him Colburn’s response because “Dennis indicated that he had a different plan for the California Impressionist work and there was no longer a need to meet. Dennis did not discuss OCMA’s plan with me.”

Colburn and other critics of the sale say that before making the sale of its plein-air paintings final, Szakacs and OCMA should have sought a bid from Laguna. “Dennis never said, ‘Hey, we’re going to sell off this collection, we have an offer for these 18 paintings and will you guys beat that?’.” Colburn said.

Szakacs repeatedly has said that selling to the Laguna Beach-based collector was a way of ensuring that the paintings stayed in the Orange County community, when an auction would have likely dispersed them.

The guidelines of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, a major professional group, for selling art from a museum collection — known as deaccessioning — specify selling to another museum as one of the “preferred methods”; selling to a private collector is not banned, but it is not on the preferred list.

The Times repeatedly has asked Szakacs why, given those guidelines, OCMA didn’t tell Laguna and the Irvine Museum, which specializes in California Impressionists, about the private offer and give them a chance to bid.

“My response is that we followed guidelines,” Szakacs said once more on Thursday. “People can interpret them differently, but we did nothing outside the AAMD guidelines. And again, we made overtures to Laguna Art Museum about a potential trade that were ignored.”

In light of criticism that OCMA was not fair to the Laguna Art Museum in the sale, Szakacs says it should get credit for a past good deed: giving the Laguna museum 3,372 artworks in 2004, including 33 plein-air paintings, as well as more than $200,000.

Szakacs said this was a “goodwill gesture” he initiated after arriving in 2003 from his previous job at the New Museum in New York City aimed at resolving lingering tensions between the two museums from the ill-fated merger. That union between the Laguna Art Museum and the Newport Harbor Art Museum created OCMA but also sparked lawsuits and ended in 1997 with the unwinding of the deal and the rechartering of the Laguna Art Museum

Colburn credits Szakacs with initiating the transfer of the art and cash to Laguna, but says it was no gift. In the undoing of the merger, he said, those works, which once had belonged to the previous incarnation of the Laguna Art Museum, were held in a special trust that gave the Laguna museum an ownership share in the art, while OCMA was in charge of administering the trust. The arrangement never worked smoothly, Colburn said, and ending it with the transfer of full ownership to the Laguna Mmuseum was a good resolution. But he says OCMA can’t claim good citizenship points for donating art and money — he says the amount was $141,000 — in which the Laguna museum already had an ownership stake.

“That’s incorrect,” Szakacs says. “They were not held jointly, they were OCMA property.”

Szakacs said the friction over OCMA’s art sale would not stop his museum from cooperating with Laguna on loans for exhibitions — and that the invitation to put other museums in touch with the mystery collector who now owns the 18 paintings extended to the Laguna museum as well.

“I wouldn’t say they’ve necessarily burned a bridge with me,” he said, although he speculated that Laguna’s criticism of the sale may not endear it to the paintings’ new owner in any future discussions about getting the works on loan.

“That’s just conjecture on my part,” Szakacs said. “I would still certainly be willing to help.”

-- Mike Boehm

Related stories:

San Diego museum leader criticizes OCMA's sale of paintings

Laguna museum hopes to beg or buy 18 paintings OCMA sold

OCMA sells paintings to private collector, prompting criticism
 

Photos (from top): Dennis Szakacs; Bolton Colburn (left) with former Laguna Art Museum curator Tyler Stallings. Credits: Los Angeles Times/Laguna Art Museum
 

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