Think of those restaurant chains that deliberately keep their menus simple — Chipotle, say, or In-N-Out Burger. Then apply that approach to the world of art, and you might have something akin to the Irvine Museum. The small venue, which takes up part of an office building at 18881 Von Karman Ave., restricts itself to a single field: California paintings from approximately 1875 to 1950 that capture the sprawling landscape of a state that developers had only begun to touch.
To preserve that part of California's art history, the museum draws on its own stock, as well as on the private collections of Irvine family matriarch Joan Irvine Smith and her son, museum President James Irvine Swinden. Last month, Executive Director Jean Stern and his team celebrated their two-decade mark with "Lasting Impressions: Twenty Years of the Irvine Museum," which features 44 works and will run through June 6. As the show prepared to open, Stern spoke with the Daily Pilot about his group's mission, its low prices and its (possibly) most beloved painting. The following are excerpts from the conversation:
When you look at the images in those old paintings, do you think California has changed a lot since then?
Well, the land is the same. What's happened to it — in some parts, of course, there's been development. We all agree that we need houses, we need freeways and we need shopping centers, but there's also a desire to try to preserve what we can still preserve. These paintings show us what we've lost, but they also show us what we can still save, and I think a reasonable approach [is] this type of development where the people are — their needs are met, but also, the land is kept as much as possible for future generations. I think that's what makes Irvine and Orange County such a wonderful place to live.
Are there any paintings in particular where you look and think, "Boy, I wish that still existed?"
We have several views of the area around what would now be downtown Irvine. You can see Saddleback Mountain, and there's lots of open space all over. It's of the past, of course; it isn't that way anymore. But we also have paintings of gorgeous coastline that's been preserved, and paintings of the interior hills around Laguna and around Santa Ana mountains that are still preserved. It's the price we pay for being here. I know I came from some other part of the country and I'm happy to be here, and I wouldn't want to go back, and I imagine that's the way it is with most people. So I think the idea of trying to keep things well and reasonably developed is something that everybody agrees on.
You mentioned in the press release that this 20th-anniversary show has some of the museum's "most popular" paintings. How do you determine how popular a painting is?
Well, we get a lot of comments. We get a lot of feedback. And one painting in particular, as you walk in the doors, is a large painting of poppies and lupines. It's big — it's 32 inches by 80 inches, and it's by Granville Redmond, one of the important painters of California. It was done about 1925. That painting is there permanently now, because when we first started displaying it, people loved it, and we took it down to send it to the European trip, and we got a lot of complaints. People would bring in their families, especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas. They wanted to show them this magnificent painting of California, and it was somewhere in Paris or in Krakow or Madrid. So when it came back from that trip, it just pretty well [got] nailed to the wall. It doesn't move. It's almost our sign.
How many total pieces are in the anniversary show?
There are 44 paintings in the show, which is a little less than we normally have because we have some very large paintings. We have paintings that take up the normal space of two or three other paintings, but we wanted to show some of our best paintings, and they're hanging in the show. They're difficult to move — they're very heavy, they're delicate, there's a lot of things that could be wrong, could go wrong, when you move a very large painting, so these things don't get displayed very often, and they don't get to travel very often for the same reasons. But we have them here, and we are waiting to hear what people think when they come in and see these.
Was it hard to choose the lineup for the show?
Yes, it was. Part of it was that we have 88 paintings out [in touring exhibits], which could have easily figured in the show. But the collection is so big. Between the three collections I mentioned earlier, there are about 2,000 paintings. And we can put together — in this case, we have three first-rate shows without borrowing from other museums or from the private community. So we try to show our very best paintings, and most of the time, some of our very best paintings are out on tour, so it's a large collection. It makes it a lot easier than if it was, you know, a collection or four or five hundred paintings. That would be hard to do three shows.
Do you have a personal favorite piece in the whole show?
What's your favorite child? [laughs] There are a lot of paintings that I love here, and I've been in this business all my life. My father was an art dealer, and I grew up in the art world, and I've been an art history instructor and an art gallery director and a museum director, so I've seen a lot of art and I feel very fortunate to be involved in this wonderful undertaking, bringing these paintings to the public with as little handicaps as possible, making it easy for them to borrow, easy for them to come in and look at the paintings.
We charge $5 for admission, which is lower than almost all other museums, but if you're under 18, it's free. If you're a student, it's free. And if you're a senior citizen over 60, it's free. So by far, most of our constituents come in free anyway, and we're very happy to have that, because we have a lot of dedicated constituents that come in to every one of our shows. And then they tell their friends, and they tell people, and people from out of town will go tell their local museum, "Why don't you borrow a show from the Irvine Museum?" and so forth. So we're kept very busy, and we love it.