DOWNEY - The Museum of Modern Art in New York is one of the best of its kind in the world. For any artist to be included in its collection or one of its exhibits is an E-ticket to the big time of national and international art circles. MOMA recently sent the Downey Museum of Art a request for an installation view of the work of Robert Heinecken, which was part of a 1970 show called "Continuum." They're not going to get it anytime soon. Why? Because Downey museum officials can't find it. Why can't they find it? Because it's in storage, and no one knows exactly where it is. Why is it in storage? Because the city won't give them back the keys to the Furman Park building that was gifted to them.

Why won't the city give them the keys to their own building?

Your guess is as good as mine, but the implications are scandalous.

Let's backtrack: On July 14, 1957, county, state and local officials were on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony commemorating the gift of the L-shaped stucco building, located at the entrance of Furman Park, to the principals of the Downey Art Museum. The title was presented by Willard Woodrow, president of the Aldon Construction Company, a Downey-based home building outfit known for its philanthropic largesse. Woodrow's wife, Alice Woodrow, was the museum's first director. This was during the days when many of Downey's social elite also had artistic interests and accomplishments. Some members of the Downey Symphony, for example, had enjoyed international careers.

For decades, the museum held a certain prestige for its exhibits, its roster of artists, and its teaching programs for kids. The Los Angeles Times periodically sent down Suzanne Muchnic, its best art reporter, to cover the museum's showings. Part of this period was when the Times had a daily circulation north of 800,000, and bureaus in Orange County, San Diego County, and Washington D.C., where you could drop a quarter in a vending machine and read about what was going on in the City of Angels, including, now and then, the Downey Museum of Art. This means that, of all of Downey's cultural institutions, the DMOA was its most famous.

Like all museums, it had its ups and downs and financial scares. But it held on to that unlikely site. It kept on showing. Then, in 2008, a bizarre conflict took place between DMOA co-director Kate Davies and her former director of business and development (meaning marketing). Details are murky, but it appears that the marketing lady put money into a raffle scheme that fizzled, and then she turned around and sued Davies and the DMOA to get her money back (whether the city of Downey is named as co-defendant is also unclear). As the battle heated up, the museum's collection was held hostage. According to DMOA treasurer Barbara Briley Beard, a museum employee was returning with the mail one day just as the marketing lady was having a locksmith change the lock to the museum's front door. The Downey police were called. In the imbroglio that ensued, the police took the keys to the building. They haven't been seen since, at least by the museum people. In the meantime, the DMOA collection has been packed up and placed in storage and, according to Beard, the building is being used, illegally, by the city as a warehouse facility.

The story might end there, in bitter stalemate, except that the board, under George Redfox, sidestepped the conflict by reorganizing under the museum's old nonprofit banner. Enter the Deputy Attorney General of the State of California, Tania M. Ibanez, part of whose job is to make sure that nonprofits stick to the letter of the law. After investigating the case, and acting for Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, Ibanez wrote to then Downey Mayor Luis Marquez on September 28, 2011.

In the letter, Ibanez states, "When property is donated to a public entity for a specific purpose, the public entity is restricted from selling the property or using the property for other inconsistent uses." She cites a number of legal precedents, which prohibit the city from violating those restrictions. They include using the public entity, the Downey Museum of Art, for storing city stuff ("Because the Building was donated for the specific purpose of housing DMOA, the City of Downey shall not be using the Buiding for inconsistent purposes.")

Ibanez' letter concedes that her investigation revealed some evidence of DMOA mismanagement, but no theft or fraud.

"It has come to my attention," she adds, "that DMOA has not been allowed by the City of Downey to return to is Building in Furman Park. We respectfully request that the City reconsider its decision not to allow DMOA to return to the Building."

The city's answer? Silence.

There's no evidence, as far as I've been able to discover, that then-mayor Marquez acted on the Deputy Attorney General's request, either by answering it or sharing it with the council (he hasn't responded to my e-mail requests, but in fairness to him, they've been made in just the past few days).

The city's reconsideration? A 4-1 vote in 2012 to keep the building closed (Roger Brossmer cast the sole vote to reopen the museum, and Alex Saab, an arts supporter and former DMOA recording secretary, wasn't yet in office).

Queried on the issue, current Mayor Mario Guerra says that he (and the city) have supported the museum by paying for storage space and by offering a site in city hall for the museum to hang one picture a month. The general consensus among city officials seems to be that the building is unsafe.

"It's sinking," says Parks & recreation director Arlene Salazar.

"It's a bad building," says Guerra.

Counters Redfox, "Buildings that were built in Downey between 1950 and 1965 are so structurally sound that they've all withstood the wear and tear of time. Besides, we have carpenters and electricians willing to come in and fix what needs to be fixed. It may not be the greatest location, but it's the only one we have, and until we can get open and exhibiting, we can't get the grants to keep us going. All we need is to get back in there. Just give us a shot."

As for meeting Ibanez' request, Guerra e-mails, "The city told the attorney generals (sic) office face to face that we would be happy to help in preserving the collection...I was in the room when that was stated."

Answers Beard, "Tania said she'd notify us in writing if such a meeting took place. We never received a letter. The meeting never happened. Mario just tells people what he thinks they want to hear."

Enough of all this he-said, she-said. You get the idea. If the city wanted to reopen the museum, then it would be up and exhibiting again in no time and all would be forgotten--except by Kate Davies, who left Downey after losing her house trying to keep the museum afloat.

By December 31, if the Downey Museum isn't operating in its Furman Park site, it will have to disperse its collection. At that point, all those people out there who crow about a vibrant and emerging art scene in Downey should take a moment of silence. There will have been a death in the family.

********** Published: July 25, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 15

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