After board meltdown, Downey Museum of Art looking for a home

Nov 16, 2011 No Comments by

DOWNEY – With a $27.9 million building plan thrown out the window and a revealing lawsuit behind them, members of the new board of the Downey Museum of Art are trying to re-open at its old building in Furman Park.

The effort comes after a 2009 meltdown of the museum’s board that resulted in the museum losing its lease and the group’s 400-piece collection being tucked away in storage.

“Really, the sooner we get in there, the better,” said board member George Manzanilla. “Right now, we have all the art in storage. We might as well store it (at Furman Park) where people can see it and appreciate it.”

Because all of the art is crammed in a storage unit, the board literally cannot access much of the paintings and filing cabinets. The board hopes to get the collection back into the Furman Park building, where it can be sorted, catalogued and protected by an alarm and a climate control system.

But city officials are wary to return the museum to Furman Park, which was the museum’s home from its founding in 1957 until the city evicted the museum from the building in 2009.

“I want to see the museum come back, but not a Furman Park,” Councilman Roger Brossmer said. “They already failed there once. Why go down that road again?”

He and other city officials would prefer the art be exhibited in Downtown Downey, most likely in conjunction with the Downey Art Vibe, a home-grown art coordination/promotion cooperative hired by the city to bring art and culture to the city.

But members of the museum’s board say they badly need the old building. The museum is saddled with about $70,000 in debt and needs a venue to start making money, Board Member George Redfox said.

“I know they don’t think Furman is really the best place for the museum, and we don’t necessarily think that either,” Redfox said. “But right now the art’s in storage, and we can’t even get at it. If they could let us use that building, it would be the biggest help to us getting this stuff back out for the community to see.”

Redfox is one of the last remaining board members after a bitter fight between former curator Kate Davies and a faction of the board that led to the museum’s closure.

Davies, who has since resigned as curator, did not return an email request for an interview or a telephone call left at her office.

The 2009 closure was touched off by a chain of events that started two years earlier – 2007 — with a doomed 50th anniversary raffle and a $27.9 million development plan to build a new facility.

Davies, the director and curator of the museum since 1998, wanted to use the raffle as “seed money” for a sustainable, green-living demonstration building at what was then a still-to-be-determined location. The proposed building was to be dubbed Glidehouse, according to court records. She and the board drew up a business plan in 2000, and the raffle was to be the first step toward making the project a reality.

But when fundraisers went out into the community, they found almost no support for such a project, according to court documents and former Board President Carmella Spencer, who was a close friend of Davies before the board schism.

Spencer and raffle coordinator Anita McGarr were convinced the money would be better spent refurbishing Furman Park. Spencer was especially worried because she put up about $80,000 of her own money to get the raffle going. Davies had also put in at least $5,000 of her own money and had borrowed against her property to help pay McGarr’s salary, according to documents contained in a lawsuit.

The disagreement worsened and the raffle was called off, in part because the board let the museum’s corporate status lapse due to overdue filings.

Davies led a successful effort to get Spencer off the board, and McGarr resigned.  At some point, McGarr and Spencer were seen by a friend of Davies trying to enter the museum. After hearing allegations from both sides, the city in March 2009 notified the museum’s board that it was cancelling the museum’s lease to the city-owned building.

McGarr had a $2,000-a-week contract to coordinate the raffle, and in February 2009 she sued the museum for $383,000 in back pay.

Attorneys for Davies and the museum argued that McGarr should have never expected to be paid such a salary, pointing out that the museum never grossed more than about $25,000 annually.

McGarr’s attorney countered that, in light of the $28 million Glidehouse development plan, $2,000 a week was reasonable compensation. He also pointed to a six-figure salary Davies planned to take as director of the Glidehouse.

In court documents, it was revealed that Davies planned to be paid at least $350,000 annually as director of the Glidehouse if it were ever to come to fruition. That was in addition to a salary of $150,000 as the Glidehouse’s development director. Her salary would have nearly matched that of the director of the Getty Museum. She also said the Downey Museum of Art owed her $1.1 million for her service since 1998. She decided, however, that she would be willing to take $550,000 due to the museum’s financial state. If the museum were ever to lose its viability, Davies was going to sell the art and keep the proceeds, according to a court deposition.

Davies in the deposition claimed she had no idea how much she had been paid since taking the director’s job in 1998. She said she had no written compensation contract. She also claimed that she did not know how many art pieces the museum owned.

Davies in 2008 sold off some of the museum’s collection to compensate herself. Davies sold 32 works by Donna Schuster to an art dealer for $10,500. Schuster is a very sought-after California plein air painter from the early 1900s, according to the Karl Ring of the Redfern Gallery, which owns the Donna Schuster estate, including many of the artist’s paintings.

“She’s important,” Ring said. “Everybody who collects plein air enjoys Donna Schuster.”

The Schuster paintings from the Downey Museum of Art are being sold by art dealer George stern for $3,500 to $10,000 each, according to the Stern’s website.

Davies also testified that she sold a pair of Batchelder tiles for $350 each. Commonly used on fireplaces, the tiles are a quintessential arts-and-crafts feature.

She also kept 27 art pieces at her home, she said.

“Some of them were given to me as compensation, and others were there basically for protection,” she said in the court deposition.

Board members approved the sales, they said.

At one point during the dispute, the California Attorney General’s office also got involved in the case because state officials were worried the collection would be liquidated and would no longer be accessible to the public, according to former board members.

McGarr eventually dropped her lawsuit in February of this year. She said she ended up getting nothing.

She hoped the collection could be exhibited again in Downey, and she was excited to hear the new board seemed enthusiastic about getting the art back out into the public.

“I don’t know how much I can say, because of the court and the lawsuit and everything,” she said. “But I really do wish Downey all the best. The collection, from what I understand, is excellent and basically intact. There was so much support for that museum getting back on its feet, especially the idea for some sort of art-and-culture learning center at Furman Park. The community really loved it.”

Those who knew Davies well said Davies sincerely wanted to build the Glidehouse and that she poured her time and personal finances into the museum.

“She was never in it for the money,” Redfox said. “Every time I talked to her, she wanted to make that museum something great.”

By all accounts, the Downey Museum of Art, founded in 1957, was one of the first contemporary art museums on the west coast.

Its collection contains artwork from several masters, most notably Boris Deutsch, a Los Angeles-based muralist and painter from the early 20th century.

Board member Harold Tseklenis said much of the art would go perfectly with the Pacific Standard Time exhibit currently being presented by the Getty Museum. Pacific Standard Time features the architecture and paintings from 1945 to 1980.

“If we hurry, we still might be able to work with them and be included in the exhibit,” he said.

But some, including Councilman Brossmer, wonder how much the community is connected to the art.

“I’m not saying they don’t have a good collection,” he said. “But a lot of people didn’t even know that Furman had a museum.”

He would like the board to raise money and possibly sell a few pieces of art before the city committed to any relationship with the museum, he said.

Former Board Member Harry Scorzo also questioned Downey’s love for art.

“I did a new-music concert series a few years back, and I could not get people to come to Downey to save my soul,” he said.

Shows at venues in other cities thrived while shows at Furman had lots of empty seats, he said. And from 2006 to 2009, the museum’s exhibit was changed out only once, he said.

“I mean, even at our board meetings, we did nothing,” he said. “We just went over the minutes.”

But the paintings themselves are impressive, he said.

“I mean those Deutsch paintings are just haunting,” he said.

Spencer, the former board member, said she has no hard feelings toward anyone in Downey.

“In the past, they had some extraordinary shows there,” she said.

The raffle fiasco was a dark chapter in the museum’s history, but it shouldn’t spell the end of the museum, she said.

“It was messy, that’s true, but it’s not messy anymore,” she said.  “You have to look to the future. There’s mud puddles in everything. They need a chance. That’s ultimately the bottom line.”

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