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I met Gerald Buck in 2012 at a Laguna Art Museum panel discussion for its exhibition, “Best Kept Secret: UCI and the Development of Contemporary Art in Southern California.” The display — part of the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time (PST) art initiative — elucidated the early days of UC Irvine’s Art Department. Buck, a long time collector of 20th-century California art, mentioned that he had attended dozens of PST exhibitions in the previous six months, enjoying them all thoroughly.

In 2013, Buck and his wife Bente passed away. In 2014, their family donated their entire 3,200 art piece collection to UC Irvine. Among the 700-plus artists represented in the collection are Peter Alexander, Carlos Almaraz, Larry Bell, Richard Diebenkorn, Viola Frey, George Hermes, Ed Kienholz, Gilbert Luhan, David Park, Ed Ruscha, Wayne Thiebaud, James Turrell, DeWain Valentine and Peter Voulkos. Art movements include Assemblage, Bay Area Figurative, California Funk, Chicano art, Hard-edge painting and Light and Space.

Soon after, the nearby Irvine Museum announced that its 1,300-piece collection of 19th and 20th century California Impressionist artworks would also be donated to the University of California, Irvine. Significant artists in that collection include Franz Bischoff, Frank Cuprien, Anna Hills, Joseph Kleitsch, Edgar Payne, Hanson Puthuff, Granville Redmond, Guy Rose, Elmer Wachtel and William Wendt.

Maurice Braun, Yosemite, Evening from Glacier Point, 1918, oil on canvas (The Irvine Museum Collection)

Stephen Barker Ph.D., Dean, UC Irvine, Claire Trevor School of the Arts (CTSA), the contact person for the Buck and Irvine Museum collections, was both stunned and delighted by these two endowments. Considering how to manage the numerous art pieces, he proposed to UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman the creation of the Institute and Museum of California Art (IMCA). The venue, combining a museum and institute, would also engage UCI graduate programs in museum studies and art conservation.

The venue’s first presentation in 2017, curated by Stephen Barker, IMCA’s first Executive Director, was displayed in a 3,000-square-foot art gallery in downtown Laguna Beach. The gallery, previously owned by Buck for the display of his artwork, was, according to L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight, “a private place for Buck to study his collection.” In 2018-19, UCI mounted an exhibition of 50 Buck art pieces at its University Art Galleries. “First Glimpse,” curated by Barker, by Professor and Department Chair Kevin Appel and by Professor of Art History Cécile Whiting, all at UCI, gave the public a first look at a selection of the seminal art pieces.

Carlos Almaraz, Suburban Nightmare, 1983, oil on canvas (Buck Collection)

In August 2019, IMCA hired Kim Kanatani as Museum Director. The California native and former Guggenheim Museum Deputy Director and Director of Education kept a low profile at first, immersing herself in IMCA’s expansive collection and planning for the venue’s future.

I met Kanatani last February at an art networking event and requested an interview. Soon after, with California in lockdown mode, I figured that she was taking advantage of the nationwide slowdown to formulate plans for IMCA’s future. And indeed she was…and still is. Recently, I was fortunate to interview her remotely.

Kim Kanatani Deputy Director and Gail Engelberg Director of Education

Kanatani explained that the IMCA staff has completed a full physical inventory of the art collection and is developing a collection management system and database. “We have begun a systematic process for conservation assessment and treatments, as needed,” she explained, adding that they are broadening their understanding of California art and considering adding work to the collection. “An integral part of the process is to explore the manifestations, implications and applications of California art,” she said. “Yet the definition of [the genre] remains open to interpretation.”

IMCA also plans to launch a series of virtual meetings involving “experts” on various aspects of California art. “The participants, with a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives, will include individuals and institutions who are not part of UCI,” she said,  “yet would value and use IMCA’s resources and programs. The goal is to seek their input and to generate varied, inclusive, expansive investigations of this topic.”

Regarding building plans for the museum to be on the UCI campus, Kanatani said, “When I arrived, I asked that the building project be temporarily paused to take time to envision our future and to develop a strategic plan articulating IMCA’s aspirations. Our intent is to create an architecturally-significant building that responds to and becomes part of the IMCA collection. A key consideration is accessibility by the campus, regional community and beyond.”

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1963, ink on paper (Buck Collection)

About opening an interim gallery, Kanatani responded: “We are waiting for directives from the State and from Chancellor Gilman to announce the reopening of our interim gallery [previously in the former Irvine Museum location]. We have created a preparedness plan that includes the new normal standards that many museums are instituting. We have deeply missed our visitors and look forward to sharing our exhibitions and educational programs again, hopefully soon.”

As online exhibitions are now intrinsic tools of art venues, IMCA continues refining its website. “We are updating content to make it more user-friendly and easier to navigate,” Kanatani said. “We have been using  Instagram to highlight works in our collection, while sharing fascinating stories about the artists represented and their backgrounds.”

The venue’s Monthly Muse, available through email and online, is a detailed newsletter with content about IMCA’s ongoing activities, along with stories about important artists, art supporters and art-related events in Southern California. Kanatani added: “We are preparing a new workshop program that integrates object-based learning with hands-on artmaking, intending to launch a digital version this fall.”

As IMCA promotes dialogues on the arts, Kanatani explained, “Once social normalcy is reestablished, we will host a multi-day working conference on California art to engage experts and to include public participation and programming. As we build a community of partners allied with IMCA’s mission, I envision annual or biannual convenings to help us evolve and refine our frameworks and to interpret IMCA’s future initiatives in ways we cannot yet imagine.”

Guy Rose, Laguna Eucalyptus, 1917, oil on canvas (The Irvine Museum Collection)