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“The Greatest Collection of California Art that Nobody has Seen”

By Liz Goldner

April 6, 2024
Langson IMCA, UC Irvine, Irvine, California

Stephen Barker, formerly Executive Director, IMCA, at Gerald Buck Laguna Beach gallery, on-site storage, November 2017.
Photo: Mark Chamberlain

Art critic Christopher Knight wrote in the “LA Times” in 2017, “Not only is the vast trove [of California art] the finest holding of its kind in private hands, the [Gerald E. Buck] collection is poised to anchor an ambitious new museum being launched at UC Irvine.”

The Buck collection of 3,300-plus paintings, sculptures and works on paper from World War II to 2000, along with more than 1,000 California Impressionist paintings from the former Irvine Museum, were gifted to UC Irvine nearly a decade ago. The prized 20th century collections became the foundation for The Institute and Museum of California Art (IMCA). Yet the art facility's story is a cautionary tale of grand plans proposed and then dashed due to apparent institutional missteps.

Roger Kuntz, “Santa Ana Arrows,” 1962, oil on canvas.
All photos of artworks © Tom Lamb.

The story begins with Dr. Stephen Barker, formerly dean of UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts and steward of those collections, who helped formulate IMCA’s mission: to exhibit the 4,500 art pieces in an expansive museum setting; to research interdisciplinary studies of California art; and to offer, through UC Irvine, a PhD and master’s degree in museum studies and art conservation. The Irvine Museum collection has been regularly exhibited in the original venue founded by philanthropist Joan Irvine Smith.

In 2017, UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman approved the formation of IMCA and its future building — which had been included in the blueprint in architect William Pereira’s 1962 UCI campus design. Barker, as the venue’s executive director at the time, announced that an architect would soon be chosen to design the 100,000-square-foot IMCA structure.

Later in 2017, journalists were invited to visit a private gallery in Laguna Beach, operated at the time by UCI, and previously owned by Gerald Buck. There they were treated to view Buck’s treasures, which includes paintings by Joan Brown, Jay DeFeo, Tony DeLap, Richard Diebenkorn, David Hockney, Gilbert Lujan, Ed Ruscha, and so many others. Among the treasures was a spectacular ceramic sculpture, “Woman in Blue and Yellow II” by Viola Frey. Malcom Warner, then-Executive Director of the Laguna Art Museum, remarked, “This is undeniably the greatest collection of California art ever assembled in private hands.”

Viola Frey, “Woman in Blue and Yellow II (May Lady),” 1983, ceramic and glazes.

In early 2018, Barker announced that IMCA would become a $100 million research facility, bringing together every department in the school. A fundraising campaign entered into a planning stage. In the meantime, IMCA’s collection was to be moved to a temporary 16,000-square-foot space at UCI’s Research Park on Innovation Drive, a relocation that never took place.

In late 2018, Barker co-curated (with Kevin Appel and Cécile Whiting, both from UCI’s art department) a “First Glimpse” of major Buck art pieces, attracting 8,500 visitors to the UCI galleries. The exhibition included pieces by Larry Bell, Joan Brown, Tony DeLap, Lorser Feitelson, Roger Kuntz, Gilbert Lujan, Helen Lundeberg, David Park, Agnes Pelton, Wayne Thiebaud, and Peter Voulkos.

Soon after, I requested additional information about IMCA from Barker. He wrote back that he was no longer the venue’s executive director and did not explain why. His great enthusiasm for IMCA may have clashed with UCI’s painfully slow efforts to carry out his grand plans. Barker retired in June 2022. At his retirement party, many people praised his accomplishments at UCI, but not a word was said about his accomplishments at IMCA.

Peter Alexander, “Thrasher,” 1992, oil on canvas.

In August 2019, IMCA hired a new director, Kimberley Kanatani from New York’s Guggenheim Museum. She envisioned IMCA as, “serving as a state-of-the-art teaching and learning institution, which will offer unparalleled arts and cross-curricular experiences for the campus and the wider community.”

Working from IMCA’s small interim space in the Irvine Museum’s original location at the Airport Tower in Irvine, Kanatani has spearheaded exceptional exhibitions addressing 20th century California art and held stimulating panel discussions. She and her staff engaged in important research into California art, detailed in two monographs. Yet while IMCA’s shows have displayed many pieces from the former Irvine Museum, it has included relatively limited work from the Buck Collection. The majority of its important pieces remain in storage in Los Angeles — to the dismay of many who patiently await the arrival of the new museum building.

Charles Arnoldi, “Bob,” 1991, mixed media.

I often visited the interim IMCA (soon after known as Langson IMCA) and wrote about its shows, occasionally inquiring about the proposed museum building. Yet I received noncommittal answers. A few people have suggested that UCI was devoting most of its financial resources for a new medical center on Jamboree Road in Irvine.

Recently, the university announced that the medical center was in progress, while also stating, “Not far away, the Jack and Shanaz Langson Institute and Museum of California Art will house a remarkable collection of more than 4,500 impressionist and contemporary California artworks, primarily from The Irvine Museum and Buck collections.” While the IMCA building would be erected on the medical center campus rather than at Pereira’s original location, museum executives have not confirmed when it will be constructed.

Richard Diebenkorn, “Albuquerque #9,” 1952, oil on canvas.

One campus spokesman responded, “Due to the rising costs of construction and current financial considerations, the university continues to explore options for the new facility for the Jack & Shanaz Langson Institute & Museum of California Art at UC Irvine's North Campus. The university remains committed to Langson IMCA and continues engagement with our donors regarding future direction.” This unfortunate situation is taking place while other Orange County museums — including the Hilbert Museum and the Orange County Museum of Art — have recently rebuilt or expanded.

A recent IMCA newsletter stated, “Kim Kanatani … announced her resignation, effective March 28, 2024. An interim director will be named by the provost in the coming weeks and a search to fill the position will follow … Kanatani said, ‘I came to Langson IMCA in 2019 to guide a collaborative vision for the new museum and institute, and to advance the development of a purpose-built facility.’”

Phil Dike, “Newport Fish Market,” 1955, oil on canvas.

As news of Kanatani’s departure spread, arts leaders and insiders did not appear surprised at her departure. Many have sensed her dismay at UCI’s slow progress in fulfilling Barker’s and Gillman’s original directives, including erecting the museum building.

For now, the iconic Gerald E. Buck Collection is still mostly, as Stephen Barker remarked at the time of the “First Glimpse” exhibition, “the greatest collection of California art that nobody has seen.”

Liz Goldner is an award-winning art writer based in Laguna Beach. She has contributed to the LA Times, LA Weekly, KCET Artbound, Artillery, AICA-USA Magazine, Orange County Register, Art Ltd. and several other print and online publications. She has written reviews for ArtScene and Visual Art Source since 2009. 
Liz Goldner's Website.
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