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OCMA sells paintings to private collector, prompting criticism

June 14, 2009 | 10:22 pm

WendtThe Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach has quietly sold 18 of its 20 California Impressionist paintings to an undisclosed private collector, sparking criticism from two local museum directors who say the secrecy violated the public interest by preventing them from bidding to keep the works in collections open to the public.

The Times learned of the sale after a reader’s tip on Culture Monster. Reached Friday in Zurich, Switzerland, OCMA director Dennis Szakacs said the paintings from the early 1900s fetched a total of $963,000 in late March from a Laguna Beach collector whose identity the museum promised not to disclose. Szakacs defended the transaction.

“We were exchanging a high level of transparency available in an auction for the desirability of keeping these paintings with a local collector,” he said. “It’s quite possible we could have made more money, but we chose to keep them in the community. I think we made absolutely the correct decision.”

Szakacs added that the works no longer fit the focus of OCMA, a privatenonprofit institution that since 2003 has shifted its collection to art created after 1950. In keeping with museum-world standards, the money will be used only to buy art for the collection, said Szakacs, who is in Europe scouting for acquisitions.

The sale comes as sensitivities about selling from museum collections are at a high pitch, with several recent, nationally debated cases of economically pressed nonprofit institutions selling or resolving to sell works to pay general expenses. Two major professional organizations, the American Assn. of Museums and the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, condemn selling from collections unless it’s to raise money to buy other artworks.

RedmondGuidelines of the museum directors’ group encourage works sold — “deaccessioned,” in museum parlance — from public collections to be offered to another nonprofit, placed for public auction or sold to “a reputable, established dealer.” The auction and dealer routes give other museums a chance to bid for the art.

What OCMA says it did is not a clear-cut ethical breach, said Janet Landay, executive director of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors. “Frequently these things are less than black and white,” she said, and a private sale to a collector “isn’t in that level of egregious behavior” and “could easily be a very legitimate decision.”

That doesn’t wash with Bolton Colburn, director of the Laguna Art Museum, and Jean Stern, director of the Irvine Museum. Both say that if they’d known the California Impressionists were for sale, they would have sought donors to bankroll bids. The genre, often called “plein air painting,” is important to both museums.

“It’s just sad,” Colburn said, especially because the paintings, which include prime pieces by early 20th century artists William Wendt and Granville Redmond, represent the birth of the Orange County art scene in the Laguna Beach art colony and were long housed at the Laguna Art Museum.

“This was probably the most significant symbolic part of the collection,” Colburn said. Most of the sold works were donated decades ago by the artists or their friends and heirs, he said, but went to OCMA during a contentious 1996 merger. At the time, the Laguna Art Museum joined the Newport Harbor Art Museum, creating a new entity — OCMA. After a lawsuit and public outcry in Laguna, the new museum disgorged its Laguna branch, and a rechartered Laguna Art Museum was launched in 1997.

“Knowing the goals and mission of OCMA, it doesn’t surprise me that they sold them, but I’m stunned they sold it privately and are keeping it quiet,” said Stern.

Colburn said he learned of the sale about three weeks ago, when a staffer inquired about borrowing one of OCMA’s paintings for a planned Clarence Hinkle retrospective. The response: It had been sold to a private collector who couldn’t be identified. Another inquiry, about Wendt’s “Spring in the Canyon,” which Laguna had borrowed last fall for its Wendt retrospective “In Nature’s Temple,” brought the same response.

Upset, Colburn said, “I sent a letter to Dennis, saying that what they’ve done had come to our attention, and we weren’t pleased at a number of different levels.” Colburn said there was no response.

Meanwhile, 10 of the paintings are now on public display — at the Nevada Art Museum in Reno, which on May 16 opened an exhibition called “Open Air: Impressions of the California Landscape.” Director David Walker said they were loaned by an anonymous collector who approached his museum in late February.

SzakacsThe Reno show, says Szakacs, illustrates a key reason why the OCMA trustees decided to sell to that collector after first considering an auction sale. By placing the paintings with a Laguna Beach enthusiast who Szakacs says is “known for championing California plein air works” and lending them to museums, the odds they’ll be available to the local public are better than if they’d been auctioned and “scattered to the four winds.” Szakacs said he would be “perfectly willing” to help other museums contact the collector.

Another consideration, Szakacs said, was that given the extensive California Impressionist offerings at the Laguna and Irvine museums and elsewhere, “Orange County is saturated with this work.” With the $963,000, he said, OCMA can acquire modern and contemporary pieces that museum-goers otherwise would not see. So far on his trip, he said, he has spent $95,000 for a 1984 painting by Jack Goldstein, “a very important California artist who was not in our collection.”

Whether OCMA got a good price for the works sold appears to be another matter of contention.

George Stern, a West Hollywood art dealer and brother of the Irvine Museum’s Stern, specializes in California Impressionists. Running down the list of paintings on show in Reno, he said that “in a good market” — which might have meant waiting for the economy to improve — Wendt’s “Spring in the Canyon” would conservatively fetch $750,000 to $1 million and so might Redmond’s “Silver and Gold.” Altogether, he estimated, the 10 could be worth more than double what OCMA says it got for all 18.

Colburn, the Laguna Art Museum director, agrees that “Silver and Gold” is a million-dollar painting, “an A-plus, a perfect Redmond, one of the five best paintings he ever did,” while “Spring in the Canyon” could fetch “maybe half a million. They should have achieved close to those numbers, and if they didn’t, that would be very disappointing.”

Szakacs said that OCMA researched the paintings’ market value with experts at a leading auction house and with two L.A.-based “independent evaluators who don’t own galleries and don’t deal art.” He said the $963,000 compared “very favorably” with the experts’ estimates. Selling now made sense, he added, because OCMA doesn’t foresee the art market bouncing back soon, and it can take advantage of lower prices for the modern and contemporary works it wants to buy.

After negotiating the price with the private buyer, Szakacs said, OCMA was not obligated to seek a better bid from another museum. “We had kind of closed the book and needed to move forward on our own timetable.” 

-- Mike Boehm

Art critic Christopher Knight contributed to this report. 

Top: William Wendt's "Spring in the Canyon"; middle: Granville Redmond's "Silver and Gold." Credit: Laguna Art Museum. Bottom: Dennis Szakacs in 2004; credit: Los Angeles Times.

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