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Give Me Your Hidden Treasures

A trip to Santa Barbara never disappoints. Even when the traffic on PCH comes to a standstill, the scenery is so unnervingly gorgeous it's difficult to complain. Upon arrival the routine for me is more or less the same: seeing a few friends, savoring amazing Italian Gelatto at a tiny caf- whose owner imports it from Florence -- yummy! -- and of course a dash to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The current exhibition there is a selection of 90 vintage photographic portraits of Greta Garbo from her personal collection. A few early shots from before she became an icon, then dozens of images of her incomparable, glacial face "wanting to be alone." At the end, there is a passport photo of her from the early 50's, when she had already retired from the screen. You and I should be so lucky to look that good in real life, but for the divine Ms. Garbo aging was not an option. The rest of her long life she spent hiding from the camera as much as she had courted it during her reign as Hollywood's most glamorous star.

I like the way this museum reacquaints the public every few years with its permanent collection. Being a medium-size museum it always needs the gallery space for temporary exhibitions, therefore most of the permanent collection is kept in storage. Last Sunday I had a glimpse of the yet unfinished reinstallation of their permanent collection including such crowd pleasers as landscapes by Corot and Berthe Morisot, plus an early landscape by Van Gogh on loan from a private collection. This last one--in such pristine condition, with the sparkling colors so fresh--it has a sense of immediacy betraying its age. The reinstallation of the collection has a welcome sense of surprise by juxtaposing artworks from different periods and mixing paintings and sculptures with drawings, prints and photographs. My favorite painting by Bay Area artist, David Park, holds a place of honor. It shows cropped torsos of beach-goers against blazingly blue skies and the energy of the wide brush strokes, saturated with the bright colors of summer, stimulates me like the smell of fresh coffee in the morning.

It makes me wonder why our museums don't do more with their permanent collections? Familiarity breeds boredom. The Armand Hammer Museum, for example, has a very strong reputation for their cutting edge exhibitions of contemporary art. However, the display of their permanent collection of mostly 19th Century paintings looks crowded and slightly neglected, as if the museum's heart wasn't really in it. There should be intriguing ways to mix classical and contemporary art and make us look afresh at the great works of yesteryear to see how the best work of today's artists stands up against their predecessor's.

Museums always complain about the lack of exhibition space. Even MOCA, with its three different buildings, feels that it's still not enough for an ongoing display of its permanent collection, which is absolutely first rate. This spring, the museum had an excellent exhibition of art from the 1950's to the 1970's, which was drawn from their own collection. After the exhibition ended the art went back into storage. With a permanent collection of this quality there is no excuse to keep it hidden in the museum's vault. I sure would like to see their great Jackson Pollock, brooding Mark Rothko's and towering Giacometti every time I go there! As much as I'm grateful for a chance to see the current exhibitions of paintings by the bad boy-wonder Jean-Michel Basquiat, I feel slightly resentful knowing that his paintings replaced the masterpieces from the permanent collection. Hopefully one day MOCA will find a way to give us a welcome chance to visit and revisit its treasures even when they are not on display in the museum galleries. Following the example of other museums it can build a so-called public-storage space where we can have a glimpse of hundreds and thousands of artworks crowding the walls and shelf space.

One of the privileges of my profession is to be able to see art kept hidden behind museum doors. Curators love to show me their recent acquisitions and newly restored art works. Sometimes I poke my nose where I shouldn't and discover some odd and rare objects . That's how I once spotted at LACMA a life-size bust of Madame Renoir made by her husband, as a personal copy of the original one that he made for her grave. I was told that for various reasons it has never been publicly displayed, so it has been sitting in storage for decades. Just imagine seeing it in a gallery next to a life-size Renoir portrait of his young son Jean Renoir, who became a filmmaker, and later came to Hollywood. He donated his own portrait and portrait of his mother, both made by his famous father to LACMA. Why they are not reunited beats me!

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