Saturday, November 2, 2013

Long Beach Museum of Art


            On June 14, 1950, the Long Beach City Council authorized $100,000 to buy the O’Donnell property at 2260 and 2300 E. Ocean Boulevard and funded an additional $25,000 to decorate and refit it as an art center.  The three-story, 10-room house overlooked a large beach area which the city wished to acquire for public recreation.  There were additional incentives for buying the property:  the city could now straighten Ocean Boulevard and use the residence as an art museum.
            The property had had many owners since it was built in 1907.  Originally the residence of Elizabeth Milbank Anderson, a wealthy philanthropist from New York City, in 1926 it became the home of the short-lived Club California Casa Real, a private club which claimed to be Long Beach's first social, athletic and beach club for "educated and refined" people. Memberships were graduated in price from $100 to $1000,
Aerial view of the future art museum 1921
depending upon classification and time membership was acquired.  The first five hundred members paying $100, with the price rising until the complete membership quota was filled.  The Club soon faced stiff competition from the Pacific Coast Club opened near the heart of downtown Long Beach.  Failing to meet financial obligations, the Club California properties were auctioned off in 1929 and bought by Thomas A. O'Donnell.  During World War II the property was used as an officer’s club but in 1950 it was for sale at a reasonable price.
            The Municipal Art Center (as it was first called) opened on Saturday night June 23, 1951, amid controversy.  A chair with a nude sketch had art patrons buzzing.  Was it modern art --- whimsy and full of wit?  Or was it sidewalk art --- vulgar and out of place?  Everyone had their own opinion about the nude chair designed by cartoon artist Saul Steinberg.  City librarian, Edwin Castagna, in charge of the Art Center until an art director could be selected, had his hands full.
            Castagna had been City Librarian less than a year, replacing Mrs. Theodora R. Brewitt who had served in that position for 29 years.  An avid fighter against censorship, he wasn’t about to change the “interesting” display.  When Mrs. Dean Godwin, chairman of the Municipal Arts Committee, saw the chair, she asked Castagna to remove it.  He declined.  Someone took the matter into their own hands, turning the chair around with its back to the audience.  Castagna and his staff kept turning it around again with its nude front showing.  Mrs. Godwin said she would take the matter up with “proper authorities", who the press took to mean the City Manager.  When City Manager Samuel Vickers was contacted for his opinion on the matter, he issued a brief “no comment.”  Would the chair stay?  It would.  If it was removed, Fran Soldini, a famous Long Beach artist, claimed Long Beach would become the laughing stock of the United States.
         This wasn't the first time that "art" in Long Beach had come under criticism.  Back in 1914 the public library, which also served as the city's first art museum,  removed a painting because Mayor Louis N. Whealton thought it a disgrace.  The picture in question was "The Portrait of a Young Man" which the mayor labeled "as a bad example to be set before the youth of the city" because the young man held a lighted cigarette in his hand.  The mayor said:

I have no objection to a man smoking a cigarette when he is old enough to have completely formed his character, but to have such a picture before the youth of the nation is a disgrace."

City librarian Victoria Ellis resigned over this and other "systematic, harassing and petty annoyances" from Mayor Whealton.  Ironically, one of the city's newspapers, the Daily Telegram was preparing for a new advertiser---Camel Cigarettes.  For several weeks a camel appeared in advertisements with a single word: "coming." Back in the early 1900’s, most cigarette smokers rolled their own cigarettes. There were many brands of tobacco from which smokers could choose, and most thought there would be no national market for pre-rolled and packaged cigarettes. This was the case until 1913, when R.J. Reynolds released Camel cigarettes.  Prior to releasing the now-famous brand, R.J. Reynolds developed a massive advertising campaign for the cigarettes. The months-long “The Camels are Coming” campaign raised public interest and built anticipation for Camels. Eventually the entire Camel Cigarette ad appeared (the first cigarette advertisement in not only Long Beach newspapers but all newspapers) but the mayor had no control over the newspaper and the ad remained!

Omar Hubbard Building 1920's

A sad postscript - On April 3, 1976, the 11-story Omar Hubbard building at the SW corner of Broadway and Cedar (310 W. Broadway) was ripped down to make way for a new museum that was never built---an art museum, designed by famed architect I.M. Pei.