The Art of Neglect

After years of shoddy care, the once-valuable art collection at Lake Worth's Museum of Contemporary Art is in disarray, as is the museum's future

A dismembered flamingo lies on a plywood plank, a pink stump protruding from its underbelly. The ceramic creature's legs and several of its feathers have long since snapped off and now rest by its side in a storage chamber at the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Lake Worth.

The busted bird represents the plight of its keeper, a neglected South Florida institution the fate of which is uncertain. Both the artwork and the museum were entrusted to Palm Beach Community College (PBCC) in 1989 by the Lannan Foundation, a philanthropic organization established by the late J. Patrick Lannan, a Palm Beach millionaire, financier, and art collector. Now, as the school and the Lannan Foundation approach the end of their ten-year contract, the past treatment, present state, and future existence of the collection are mired in controversy.

"The Battle of the Sexes," Tom Otterness' 1982 frieze featuring a parade of pudgy characters hauling spheres and cylinders and engaging in the occasional grope, wraps around the lobby of the Art Deco building, once a grand movie theater and now home to a contemporary art collection. Hundreds of glass and ceramic works shelved in the museum's back rooms attest to the eclectic tastes of their former owner. Some pieces are whimsical, such as Richard Marquis' 1976 "Checkerboard Cosmic Whizzy Teapot," a glass confection complete with matching fabric cozy. Some are erotic, the phallic pacifier nestled inside Frank Fleming's 1975 "Pleasure Box" lending a ceramic twist to an infant's sucker. Others are poignant, like Dan Snyder's early '80s "Restoration of Hope," a seven-foot-tall, attenuated figure of pale glazed stoneware straining toward the ceiling on cracked legs.

While the veiny fissures of "Hope" are intentional, the chips and fractures that have defaced about 250 of the ceramics and 10 of the glass pieces were not part of the creative process. The museum's valuable art objects have been soiled, broken, lost, and possibly even purloined.

"We're dealing with fragile works, and over time things will happen to them," says Jim Peele, who became director of the museum in September 1997. "But the amount of damage that has happened to them is... clearly way beyond any kind of reasonable care to a collection."

The Palm Beach Community College Foundation, a nonprofit corporation affiliated with the college, did not rise to the responsibilities of managing the museum for PBCC, says Reuben Hale, who ran the museum from 1989 to 1991 as chairman of the school's fine arts department. Foundation executives refused to allocate money to hire professional art-handlers or even assistants to help inventory and catalog the collection, Hale adds.

A few of the approximately 600 ceramic pieces, 500 glass objects, and 60 works in various media did not arrive intact in 1989. But sparse records fail to document any repairs or to explain the damages since, says Peele. They also do not account for the disappearance of about 100 works of art.

Peele is trying to track down the missing pieces, the absence of which he noticed while surveying the collection. He found objects crowded or positioned precariously on wooden shelves without padding or protection from dust, stored in spaces that were not air-conditioned or in boxes turned wrong-side up.

Peele's outrage over the condition of the collection flushes his skin and exaggerates his gestures. "Every piece that is broken I consider a tragedy, and if it can be repaired, it needs to be."

"I was shocked that certain objects were stacked right on top of each other without even a piece of paper between them," recalls Shirley Koehler, an objects conservator who says she had not encountered damage this extensive in her 12 years of work for collectors and institutions such as the American Craft Museum in New York. "Almost all the breaks indicate they occurred in mishandling." The New Jersey-based Koehler recently gave the museum an estimate of more than $143,000 to repair the ceramics alone, but the PBCC Foundation has not assented to engage her services.

Koehler describes the Lannan collection as "an excursion through ceramic history," an important link to the pioneers of the 1970s whose figurative and narrative creations helped the craft -- molding clay, then firing it in a kiln until hard -- gain acceptance as an art form beyond utilitarian pottery.

The permanent collection will be displayed in the museum's main galleries from May through June, the PBCC Foundation's executive board decided last week, forcing Peele to cancel three new -- and more costly -- exhibitions he had planned. This show could be the museum's last, as the college's agreement with the Lannan Foundation expires on July 1 and with it contractual restrictions on the sale or use of the collection or the Lake Avenue building for purposes other than exhibiting or teaching about art.

"It becomes the sole property of the foundation, of which we can do with it whatever we want," claims Bill Jenner, executive director of the PBCC Foundation. "We can sell the collection, we can sell the building."

The college and the foundation have spent about $800,000 to operate the museum over the last ten years, says PBCC president Dennis Gallon, and can no longer afford to allocate tax dollars that could be better spent on scholarships and academic programs.

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