Claremont Museum of Art

Claremont, California

How does a museum die?  Slowly circling the drain or suddenly closing at an opening?  The Claremont Museum of Art died on the spot, closed at the opening of the last exhibit, the victim of credit card bills and overarching ambitions. The name of the exhibition?  “The Ten Pound Ape.”  More like the 800 pound gorilla in the room—-no money.  A few years ago, in Artscene, I wrote about the opening of the Museum in a repurposed fruit-packing factory in the heart of Claremont’s charming downtown.  In 2007 the new director had dreams of the museum being a “destination” for art lovers on their way from Los Angeles to Palm Springs and points East.  Just as people will drive miles to an amazing restaurant, he claimed,  the audience for contemporary art would trek to the small college town.  Despite the notorious reluctance of Angeleos to venture down the notorious 10 Freeway to the eastern most parts of their county, the idea of being a destination museum was not entirely unfounded.  Claremont, a place I have often referred to as “the town that time forgot,” has a group of colleges, a few graduate schools, arts and crafts houses, shady tree-lined streets, a feel of the Fifties, and a thriving arts community.  The Claremont Colleges hosted as students and professors, Chris Burden, James Turrell, Paul Soldner, Kim Dingle, Karl Benjamin, Roland Reiss, and Pitzer College has established a politically engaged art gallery.  With such a strong history in painting, installation art, performance art and ceramics, including a ceramic museum, Claremont would seem to be a great place for a destination museum.

But it was not to be.  Founded during the days of financial hubris, or better known as the era of doing too much with too little money, the Claremont Museum of Art began with only two million dollars.  Perhaps more money would materialize: there were promises of money in the future.  But for the present, the dream was simply greater than the amount of money on hand. Running a museum is an expensive business.  In order to be a destination museum, the institution needs to show destination-worthy works.  Such art is expensive, to rent, to mount, and to ship.  Staff has to be paid; rent comes due.  The exhibitions mounted were interesting but not exactly destination worthy.  However, the museum was starting—correctly—with its base and was generous to the local art community.  Many supportive artists donated their works to the substantial permanent collection. Everyone tried. There was simply wasn’t enough money to give the museum enough time to build a reputation.  A challenge grant was not met and the museum lost their last chance to stay alive.  At the end the city of Claremont paid the last month’s rent: $9000. But such a generous donation could do little but stave off the end.  The owners of the building simply could not afford to donate such an expensive space to the community, and by January of 2010 the museum was gone.  There was no fault, no malfeasance, just naïvité and inexperience.   Two million dollars are gone, jobs were lost and the collection is now housed in the basement of the American Museum of Ceramics in Pomona.  For some the dream lives on, but, meanwhile, this is how a museum dies.  Rest in peace Claremont Museum of Art.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

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