GHS Art Collection gets fresh view as COVID-19 restrictions ease

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Photo by Gary Kohatsu — Guests and members of Gardena High School Art Collection pour through various books of art at a February 2017 art show and reception at Gardena High. The event, sponsored by GHSAC and Gardena High School was the last art show at the school.

100th anniversary of rare and important paintings continue reaching audience

By Gary Kohatsu

The beauty of art is that it’s timeless. The viewing of art, however, can have time restrictions.

Such was the case of the Gardena High School Art Collection.

With the closing of public museums as part of California’s COVID-19 shutdown mandate earlier this year, the GHS paintings were dormant from “in-person” viewing for several months.

But just as the fall season brings a change of colors, the state is slowly reopening to rosy possibilities.

The 100th Anniversary project, known as “GIFTED: Collecting the Art of California at Gardena High School, 1919 – 1956,” has emerged from its covid hibernation at the Oceanside Museum of Art.

OCEANSIDE MUSEUM OF ART

“To our great joy, the museum reopened to the public on Sept. 17 and has welcomed hundreds of people each day to explore the paintings and experience the gift of this very special collection,” Collette Stefanko, OMA marketing director said.

“Visitors are allowed to come visit during open hours with limited capacity and strict adherence to all CDC guidelines, such as social distancing, mandatory masks, and hand sanitizing, special events and large gatherings are still prohibited in the interest of public safety.”

While OMA’s GIFTED Exhibition opened in virtual darkness on July 18 and was set to wrap up before December, the lost months of public viewing concerned officials.

GHSAC (organizer of the paintings) and OMA arrived at a mutual agreement to extend the exhibit from Nov. 29, 2020 to March 14, 2021, in light of the pandemic, said Simon K. Chiu, GHSAC board vice president.

“Oceanside Museum of Art (OMA) installed the exhibition as scheduled; they were ready for the public as planned despite museum was not allowed to open during the first months,” Chiu, also a noted art collector, said. “We are grateful that OMA has now opened to the public with timed tickets and expanded safety measures. We hope the community will take the opportunity to enjoy the story and legacy of this important art collection.”

On Oct. 1, the Oceanside Museum of Art also celebrated its reopening and newly-installed exhibitions, including GIFTED, with a virtual night on the town.

OMA’s special guests were Chiu and Susan M. Anderson (GIFTED exhibition curator). More than 300 OMA members and visitors registered for this live-streamed event, Stefanko said.

GIFTED COLLECTION

In 2019, GHSAC launched GIFTED with a goal of documenting the art collection’s “extraordinary story of community collaboration and to preserve and protect the collection for future generations.”

The anniversary project was planned as a multi-museum exhibition to initially span 20 months. Anderson was named the anniversary project curator.

“(Susan) approached many museums exhaustively to travel the exhibition,” Chiu said. “Due to the large scale of the exhibition, which requires larger than average exhibition space, many museums had declined to host. We did receive a few inquiries through our social media, but none was successful.”

Chiu added that the entire collection of paintings would be exhibited at the selected venues for the anniversary.

“The board felt strongly that it was important to exhibit all the paintings at the initial three venues in order to tell the complete story,” he said. “Museum(s) typically decide with their curator and our project curator to design the installation, whether in chronological order or by themes.”

THREE MUSEUM EXHIBITIONS

GIFTED started with the Hilbert Museum of California Art exhibition at Chapman University in the city of Orange, from May 11, 2019 to Oct. 19, 2019. The collection then moved to the Fresno Art Museum, from Jan. 24, 2020 to June 28, 2020. OMA in San Diego County was the third museum in the anniversary project plan.

Despite the pandemic interruption, the anniversary exhibitions seem to have generated positive results.

“(Fresno Art Museum) remained closed through the end of the six-month exhibition schedule,” Chiu noted. “FAM had done an amazing job quickly created online content with the exhibition almost daily through their social media network. My understanding is that the museum saw an increase of new membership despite the shutdown.”

OMA officials were impressed with the history behind the GIFTED exhibition.

“The exhibition tells such an inspiring story about students galvanizing their community around art, and how the understanding of art can have a wide impact on every aspect of life,” Stefanko said.
“The OMA team was motivated to look deeper and work with community experts to create a multi-pronged approach furthering the visitors’ experience in the gallery, in the classroom, and through public programs.”

Chiu said the Board is negotiating now to place the GHS Arts Collection in future museums.

“We have been in communication with a few museums with the hope to continue traveling the exhibition, perhaps in a smaller scale, after concluding at OMA next year,” Chiu said. “We continue to seek partnership with art museums, especially in Los Angeles and surrounding counties like Ventura and Riverside.

“However we do not have any additional venue in contract yet. It is our wish to travel the exhibition through the State of California,” he added.

ART HISTORY 1919

The original GHS Art Collection comprised 72 paintings purchased and presented to Gardena High School by its graduating classes, from 1919 to 1956.

GHS was once located at Normandie Avenue and Gardena Boulevard, where Peary Middle School stands today. In 1956, the high school relocated to its present location of 1301 W. 182nd St., which is actually on city of Los Angeles property.

That year also marked the end of the Purchase Prize Program started by GHS Principal John H. Whitely.

A century ago, Whitely proposed that the graduating seniors acquire a painting as a parting gift to the student body. Each painting would be carefully selected and purchased from an artist of note.

As chronicled on the GHSAC website: “What began in 1919 as a lesson in art appreciation for the high school’s graduating senior class matured into an exceptional permanent collection, an art association, and a cherished community tradition.”

Since graduating seniors were divided into summer and winter classes in a given year, two paintings were annually purchased.

“The exercise in collecting and organizing an art exhibition exposed the students and the wider community to lessons in art appreciation, as well as in good citizenship, collaboration, and debate,” according to the GHSAC site.

COLLECTION APPRAISAL

Cost of each painting at the time of purchase varied depending on various factors, including the artists’ reputations and whether the piece was commissioned. What might have cost the GHS students hundreds of dollars then, has increased exponentially over the century.

“The collection is appraised by accredited appraiser for about $5 million in 2018,” Chiu said. “The range is from $1,000 to $1 million, with majority of the pieces under $100,000. The value is ‘replacement value’ based on comparable auction records and retail prices, plus acquisition costs (tax and fees, etc.)”

During a period of several decades, from the 1960s to the late-1990s, the paintings were displayed, moved, stored and maintained in varying degrees of care.

Some of the art suffered significant damage due to improper storage conditions, officials have said.

After the new millennium, Gardena High School alum, educators and community art lovers decided to save the paintings and exhibit the preserved art to showcase its tradition and history.

The collection still ties generations of students and community members together in Gardena,” said Eiko Kamiya Moriyama, an alumna of the high school and a founding board member of the GHS Art Collection, on the GHSAC website.

GHSAC BOARD OF DIRECTORS

Moriyama, along with Bruce Dalrymple (board president) and other GHS alumni and friends, founded the GHS Art Collection for the protection and preservation of the works of art owned by the Gardena High School Student Body, as mentioned on the website.

A nonprofit organization was created in 2010 to preserve and promote the collection through museum exhibitions.

The Board oversaw fundraising efforts to fund conservation of the paintings, and to underwrite a traveling exhibition and publication featuring the collection for the 100th Anniversary.

But COVID-19 threw a wrench in the group’s fundraising plans, not to mention general meetings, board members said.

“We haven’t been able to meet except via zoom, and not as often,” Dalrymple said. “Email communication, which we have always used, continues. I don’t think future plans have changed except for future museums may be hesitant to commit depending on whether they will be allowed to open.”

Chiu said he was surprised at the turnout of the first meeting in September.

“Immediate past Gardena High School principal, Rosie Martinez, and newly on-board principal, Frank Davies, both were able to join us as well. It was a full house!” he said.

With fundraising in flux during the virus, art in need of repair has been placed on hold, Chiu added.

“We were not able to hold any fundraising events or gatherings (due to the pandemic),” Chiu said. “Unfortunately, we do still have one very important painting that was severely damaged by previous nonprofessional restoration work (done in 1980s) that requires new donations to fund the much needed conservation. As you can imagine many of our supporters are also impacted by the pandemic, and it was next to impossible to raise funds during this time.”

Chiu explained that to “conserve a painting” is to stabilize the condition and remove any foreign work done by someone other than the original creator, opposed “to restoring” a painting, which “in some fashion means to bring the painting back to what it is supposed to look like the day the artist finished the work.”

“Our 100th Anniversary project conservator was professionally trained and educated in accredited university graduate program and with museum conservation experience,” he said.

“We have raised funds and spent about $100,000 on conservation to date on 20 some paintings,” Chiu said. “We just kicked off conservation on “The Santa Barbara Coast,” a masterpiece by Wachtel. The estimate costs is around $50,000 due to significant damages. We have received underwriting pledges from art collectors and among the board members, and we will need to continue to raise money for this conservation in the next 12 months.”

He said that the GHSAC board strives to not only preserve a rich history of paintings in the group’s position, but to educate the new generation of students.

STUDENT EDUCATION

The GHS Art Collection Board works with the current GHS Principal Frank Davies, to ensure that students are aware of the school’s art collection,” board President Bruce Dalrymple said.

“We have given sets of books that we have published about the collection to the art classes,” he said. “We have also provided large reproductions of numerous paintings that are on display in the art gallery at the high school, and we plan to provide more reproductions in the near future.”

Dalrymple added that “during the 100th Anniversary Exhibit at the Hilbert Museum of California Art last year, students from Gardena High School, as well as numerous classes from elementary schools in Gardena, took field trips to the Hilbert Museum to view the GHS Art Collection.”

Gardena High last presented an art show and exhibition of the art collection in February 2017. Chiu said he looks forward to future art events at the school.

“We are eager to organize programs on campus with the principal to benefit the students and the community,” he said. “We have had an annual alumni event at the Gardena High in 2015 to 2017 with a lecture and an exhibition of a selection of paintings in the art gallery space across the hall from the library. Each event brought together over 100 attendees of alumni, student volunteers and supporters.

As part of the 100th anniversary and to promote art education, Susan Anderson created a book of the GHS Art Collection in 2019.

SPECIAL ANNIVERSARY BOOK

“We have been sending complimentary copy of our book (retail at $40, plus tax, available on our website: https://www.ghsac.org/) to public libraries, including community colleges, art schools and libraries, and public libraries,” Chiu said. “We hope to continue to raise fund to support this program. We have sent out about 250 books so far, each costs approximate $5 for shipping and packing in addition to the book cost. We wish every one of the 1,100-plus California public libraries will have a copy of the book available for the public.”

He said that the board was able to secure a donation from Historical Collections Council (http://www.historicalcollectionscouncil.org/) to fund the conservation for “The Mountain Brook,” of which the conservation was completed in time last year to join the exhibition.

As for a “favorite painting,” Chiu said the painting that most alumni prefer is the “Beethoven” by Wostry. Many of the board members and their classmates have said they remember the painting very well from their childhood.

“It is very hard to pick personal favorite from this collection. As a collector myself, many of the paintings in the collection are priceless, unique, and the very best examples of the artists,” Chiu said. “Among all, ‘The Santa Barbara Coast’ by Elmer Wachtel, and ‘The Mountain Brook’ by Paul Lauritz are among the most significant. These paintings were commissioned specifically for the high school’s auditorium space, perfectly fit to bookend the stage.”

Dalrymple also found it challenging to pick just one painting as a favorite.

“It’s very difficult to come up with one favorite painting,” he said. “It’s like choosing your favorite child. Each painting is unique in its own way. The public does gravitate to several paintings in particular.”

For the record, Dalrymple mentioned: Maynard Dixon’s “Men of the Red Earth”, Jessie Botke’s “Cranes Under a Giant Fern”, William Henry Price’s “Towering Peaks”, Carlo Wostry’s “Beethoven”, Hanson Puthuff’s “Mountains of Majesty”, Paul Lauritz’s “The Mountain Brook”, Franz Bischoff’s “A Cool Drifting Fog,” to name a few.

An OMA official shared her favorite painting as “Betatakin Ruins.”

“It has an incredible presence, defining and commanding the space that it fills in the gallery,” Katie Dolgov, exhibitions manager and registrar said. “The cliff dwellings in the painting appear so small against the majestic arch of the stone, it is an impressive representation of space, scale, and timeless human history. I am so happy that this artwork and so many other artworks by key early California masters could be preserved for the public in this collection.”

As for GHSAC’s future, some adjustments will be met with challenges.

“Due to the pandemic, the three museums have generated some wonderful virtual content of the exhibition,” Chiu said. “We have discussed about creating online content for the collection as well, however this will require new resources.”

IMPORTANT INFORMATION

Accompanying the anniversary exhibit was a book of more than 200 pages with color plates of the entire collection and its historical background, according to the GHSAC site.

“The book, titled Gifted: Collecting the Art of California at Gardena High School, 1919-1956, was extensively researched and written by art historian Susan Anderson, and tells the remarkable story relating how the collection came to be as each graduating class selected a painting to add to the collection.

“Also included is information about each painting in the exhibit. This valuable collection has garnered much acclaim and is the most exceptional collection of its kind gathered by students.”

The hardcover book is $40, plus tax and shipping costs. Go to the GHSAC website for more information: https://www.ghsac.org/

Proceeds will go directly to cover the cost of publication, further conservation and care of the collection, and educational endeavors, board members said.

Donations can be made online or sent to GHS Art Collection, P.O. Box 111 Gardena, CA 90248. The tax ID is 37-1591566

Those wanting to see the GIFTED exhibition can visit at 704 Pier View Way, Oceanside, Calif., 92054. Call ahead for ticket price and other information at 760-435-3720.