UCI’s Art Museum is a Dream Deferred, but Should Be Worth the Wait

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Once upon a time in the not-too-distant past, dreams for UC Irvine’s Institute and Museum of California Art (IMCA) were unveiled, and some very specific plans were disseminated.

IMCA was expected to be built on Campus Drive, adjacent to the Irvine Barclay Theatre. That was consistent with UCI architect William Pereira’s original 1962 campus blueprint.

The building was projected to be 100,000 square feet, with 45,000 to 50,000 square feet of exhibition space, and cost between $150 million and $200 million, according to 2018 interviews with Stephen Barker, dean of UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts and former executive director of IMCA.

A groundbreaking was projected within the next five years, which would have been by 2023.

Image courtesy of Kim Kanatani

Kim Kanatani, the new director of the UC Irvine Institute and Museum of California Art.

By fall of 2019, the museum was supposed to move into a 16,000-square-foot interim location on the UC Irvine campus. The interim IMCA was anticipated to be on California Avenue in the research section of UCI, near the medical school.

But all of those plans were essentially scrapped when UCI hired Kim Kanatani as its new museum director. Kanatani came from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, where she was deputy director and director of education. Prior to the Guggenheim, she was director of education at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, for 15 years.

Kanatani, a Redlands native, started her new job at IMCA in August 2019.

“Throughout my career, I’ve been guided by two fundamental priorities — my commitment to museums and arts education, enabling people to have meaningful experiences by engaging directly with works of art; and my passion for artists and their contributions to contemporary society,” Kanatani said.

“I have always worked closely with artists — I’m married to one [Bruce Richards], and he was educated at UCI — and I think they have so many important insights to share with us about the world we live in, especially their various perspectives on the social, political, cultural and ecological environments of California.”

Kanatani seems to inspire nearly universal praise from present and past colleagues, artists and arts educators and the higher-ups at UC Irvine. They hired an executive search firm with deep knowledge in the art and museum worlds.

Image courtesy of the Regents of the University of California

“A Clear Day,” circa 1903, an oil on canvas by William Wendt, is in the Irvine Museum Collection at UC Irvine.

“With her inspiring energy, talent for creative collaboration, scholarly rigor and deep commitment to civic engagement, Kim Kanatani is the ideal leader for UCI IMCA,” said Enrique Lavernia, UCI provost and executive vice chancellor, in a statement. “She brings an outstanding national reputation that will help UCI make a positive impact through programs and exhibitions that forge meaningful connections at all levels across campus, with our neighbors and supporters, and with our many visitors from around the country and the world.”

All that being said, the museum is still back to square one. While tangible plans were in motion two years ago, now everything is up in the air again.

Image courtesy of the Elfriede Fischinger Trust and The Regents of the University of California.

“Experiment,” a 1937 oil on canvas by Oskar Fischinger is in rhe Buck Collection at the UCI Institute and Museum of California Art.

There’s no set location for the museum on the UC Irvine campus. No architect has been chosen. There’s no timeline for completion of the project. There’s no budget for the project.

Kanatani said the museum, its staff and consultants and UCI are “currently in the midst of a strategic planning process to articulate our vision and future aspirations.” The strategic plan is expected to be complete in another few months, she said.

In the meantime, IMCA is using the old Irvine Museum space at 18881 Von Karman Ave. as its temporary home. The Irvine Museum, which renamed itself the Irvine Museum Collection after its founders donated their artworks to UC Irvine, was supposed to shut down at the end of 2018.

But the galleries remain open, and in fact have been renovated. The old carpet was removed, and a new layer of pristine linoleum, which resembles hardwood floors, has been installed. The walls have received a fresh coat of paint, and new LED lighting illuminates the artworks and space.

Image courtesy of IMCA.

“Sunset in Monument Valley,” circa 1928, an oil on canvas by James Swinnerton. It’s part of the Irvine Museum Collection at the University of California, Irvine. On view at the UCI Institute and Museum of California Art through May 23.

Workers removed the front desk, which used to be where a friendly senior docent or a smiling staffer would greet visitors and validate their parking tickets. Now, visitors just walk straight into the 2,500-square-foot galleries without encountering the entry area. While some longtime visitors may be disappointed by this change, it does allow for some extra exhibition space.

The bookstore is also no more. It has been converted into an education and arts activity lab.

Fortuitous Origins

The Institute and Museum of California Art was created in October 2016 when the founders of the Irvine Museum, Joan Irvine Smith and her son, James Irvine Swinden, donated their artworks to UC Irvine.

The collection is rich in California Impressionist paintings, featuring works by William Wendt, Granville Redmond, John Frost, Franz Bischoff, Frank Cuprien, Anna Althea Hills, Edgar Payne, Elmer and Marion Wachtel, Guy Rose and many others.

The gift of 1,200 works was valued at $17 million in 2016 — at the time UCI’s largest single gift of art.

Image courtesy of the Regents of the University of California

Peter Alexander’s “Cloverfield I,” 1988, is made of oil, wax and acrylic on canvas. It’s in the Buck Collection at the UCI Institute and Museum of California Art.

In November 2017, the trust of Gerald E. Buck, a Newport Beach developer who passed away in 2013, donated the incomparable Buck Collection — valued between $30 million and $40 million — to UCI. The collection of 3,200 works covers wide swaths of California 20th century art, including California scene painting, social realism, hard-edge abstraction, minimalism and the Light and Space movement.

Artists in the Buck Collection include Peter Alexander, Carlos Almaraz, John Altoon, Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston, Tony DeLap, Richard Diebenkorn, Lorser Feitelson, Oskar Fischinger, Llyn Foulkes, Craig Kauffman, Roger Kuntz, Helen Lundeberg, John McLaughlin, Ed Ruscha, Wayne Thiebaud, James Turrell and Peter Voulkos.

With such a treasure trove of California artwork now in its collection, UCI and IMCA are taking their time to make sure the museum presents these gems in the best possible light. Along with plans to exhibit the work, an institute has been established, which will incorporate a research and study center, a conservation lab, a museum studies program and the ability to connect to UCI’s 38,000 students and 8,700-plus faculty and staff through the various schools and departments.

Image courtesy of the Regents of the University of California

“Laguna Eucalyptus,” circa 1917, is an oil on canvas by Guy Rose. It’s in the Irvine Museum Collection at UC Irvine.

It should be pointed out that all of this is happening at a state-run university, where things generally take longer than in the private sector. There are layers of bureaucracy that don’t exist with projects such as the future home of the Orange County Museum of Art, which is being built at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts. The opening of the new OCMA building is scheduled for fall 2021.

IMCA is part of the university’s Brilliant Future campaign, and new monies will need to be raised to help support the building, as well as expanded programs and operations, Kanatani said.

IMCA may take another two years to plan and two years to build, according to a source knowledgeable about the project who asked not to be identified.

‘Sublime Wonderlands’

WHERE: UCI Institute and Museum of California Art, 18881 Von Karman Ave., Suite 100, Irvine

WHEN: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays

COST: Free

INFO: (949) 476-0294 or www.imca.uci.edu

‘Sublime Wonderlands’

At its Von Karman location, IMCA has recently opened the exhibition, “Sublime Wonderlands.” The exhibit, which runs through May 23, features over 40 landscape paintings depicting the North American wilderness, from coastlines to forests to deserts.

The paintings date from the late 1800s to the early 1980s, and range in style from American Romanticism to contemporary abstraction. Artists include William Wendt, Henrietta Shore, Maurice Braun, Agnes Pelton, George Brandriff, Paul Grimm, Edgar Payne, Emil Kosa Jr., Karl Yens and others.

Dora James, IMCA’s curator of education, curated this show. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to doing something like this for a while,” said James, who has been with the museum since 2000. She served as a volunteer docent between 2000-2008, and has been curator of education since 2008.

Image courtesy of IMCA

“San Gorgonio in Spring,” a 1932 oil on canvas by Agnes Pelton is on view now at the UCI Institute and Museum of California Art. It’s part of the Buck Collection and is in the exhibition, “Sublime Wonderlands,” which runs through May 23.

James selected works from the former Irvine Museum collection, the Buck Collection and from a number of private lenders. At the opening reception, she said James Irvine Swinden approached her and told her his mother, the late Joan Irvine Smith, would have loved the show. Irvine Smith, a philanthropist, arts patron and conservationist, died in December at age 86.

“She was really into the environment, preserving what California once was,” James said. “She would have loved this exhibit.”

For James and the rest of the IMCA staff, now is a period of transition. Everything is a little bit up in the air.

Image courtesy of Mary Kuntz and The Regents of the University of California.

“Santa Ana Arrows,” from the series “Sign,” circa 1962, an oil on canvas by Roger Kuntz. The painting is in the Buck Collection at the UCI Institute and Museum of California Art.

Between full-time IMCA staff and shared university employees, the organization currently has 21 people dedicated to the museum and anticipates hiring a few more key positions over the next 12-18 months, Kanatani said.

Once the new facilities materialize and actually go live, the museum and institute will need to hire more staff, especially front-line and educational professionals, in order to be responsive to visitors, Kanatani said.

So as the temporary facility hums along, UCI’s Institute and Museum of California Art continues to be a dream — perhaps a dream deferred — but a realizable dream nonetheless.

Richard Chang is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC, focusing on the visual arts. He can be reached at richiechang@gmail.com.