Palm Springs Art Museum is so much more than you might expect

PALM SPRINGS -- In a town the size of Palm Springs, you’d never expect to find a world-class art museum. And yet, we’ve got one. The recently vitalized Palm Springs Art Museum boasts an enviable and rapidly expanding collection of modern and contemporary art, along with an excellent array of photography, western art, Mesoamerican art and glass.

The museum is headed by Executive Director Steve Nash, who arrived in 2007. Before coming to Palm Springs he worked at the de Young Museum in San Francisco and the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. He is widely recognized as an authority in modern and contemporary art.

Shortly after his arrival he brought in Deputy Director for Art and Senior Curator Daniell Cornell, with whom he had worked at the de Young. Together they have implemented an acquisitions and exhibition strategy that has propelled Palm Springs from “regional museum” status to “international player” status.

The transformation actually began prior to Nash and Cornell’s arrival, in 2005, when the museum changed its name from Palm Springs Desert Museum to Palm Springs Art Museum. Until then the museum had a natural history element as well as an art element. The natural history collection was dispersed, and the entire focus shifted to art, with acquisitions geared heavily toward modern and contemporary works—much more in line with Palm Springs’ image than the previous emphasis on western and Mesoamerican works.

At that time, however, the museum was dark, uninviting, and smelled of mildew. The Board of Directors realized that for the museum to become a meaningful center for the arts, the physical space needed a major renovation. Interior walls were removed, previously hidden windows were uncovered, the remaining walls were painted a lighter color, and the smelly carpet was replaced with beautiful hardwood. Over the course of three years, the building transformed from tired and unpleasant to vibrant and elegant.

“The remodel affects the museum very profoundly,” says Bob Bogard, Director of Marketing and Communications for the museum. “In the short term it makes the museum feel like a brand new building. In the long term it helps significantly with acquisitions."

"For instance, the Keith Haring exhibition that we had, that was a collection done by the Rubells. Steve Rubell you might remember from his Studio 54 days. His parents are major collectors in Florida. When they came out to see the remodeled museum, they immediately said yes, they wanted to be associated with this,"Bogard continued.

"Having a physical building that seemed appropriate to them was huge for us in getting them to loan us their collection. We’re doing another collaboration with them next year called ‘Beg, Borrow, and Steal’ that is the continuation of what will probably be a long-term relationship.”

Having a top-tier exhibition space has also helped with permanent acquisitions. The most notable example occurred two years ago when Donna and Cargill MacMillan, Jr. donated 117 modern and contemporary works by 75 well-known artists—including works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg.

The astounding donation not only enhanced an already impressive collection, it brought national and international recognition to the suddenly important museum.

“Palm Springs has really become a player,” Bogard says. “The LA Times regularly reports on things that are going on here. We get international press as well. Germany, Japan, we just got one in the London Sunday Times. We are suddenly a contender, someone to keep an eye on for interesting and compelling exhibitions.”

The show currently running, “Richard Avedon: Fashion, Stage, and Screen,” is typical of the shows Nash and Cornell have brought to Palm Springs. The exhibition features ninety large-scale black-and-white photographs selected by Cornell, each demonstrating Avedon’s innate ability to capture movement and lyricism.

The Avedon show is part of the museum’s new secondary focus: photography.

“In the last couple of years we’ve had some major photography gifts,” Bogard says. “Significant collectors have donated some very meaningful photography. That’s why you’re seeing more photography exhibitions. We’re also incorporating photography into the other exhibitions we have. For example, we might mount an exhibition using works from our permanent collection, and instead of doing just paintings we do paintings, glass, sculpture, and photography together.”

A terrific example of this is the upcoming show, “Steel and Shade: The Architecture of Donald Wexler,” opening January 29. This exhibition includes original drawings, newly created models, photographs, and a video project on the work of the modernist architect.

“Wexler designed a lot of key buildings here in Palm Springs like the International Airport, and he also created steel houses,” Bogard says. “We’re actually building a steel house in the museum. When you enter the gallery, you’re going to walk through the beginning of a steel house. On the other side, we’re going to leave it unfinished so you can see the inner-workings—the insulation, the electrical, the plumbing and all that stuff. This is being done in conjunction with Cal Poly Pomona. They’ve created a lot of models based on his original drawings, and they’re also building the steel structure. It’s going to be a really interesting retrospective on Wexler’s career.”

A more traditional show opens February 26, “John Baldessari: A Print Retrospective From the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation.” Schnitzer has spent years collecting the prints of pop artist John Baldessari, and he is loaning his collection to the museum for this exhibition. The prints will be supplemented by six original works from the museum’s permanent collection.

As with most museums, only about ten percent of the permanent collection is on display at any given time. That doesn’t, however, mean the ninety percent held in storage just sits there, unseen, forever. The highlights are always out, of course—paintings by Picasso don’t hide in the basement—and the rest of the collection continually rolls over.

For instance, the Western Art wing was recently redone; about 80 percent of the works up now were not up before. The Glass Center is also overhauled regularly.

The upper level of the museum, the Contemporary and Modern Art section, was dominated for a period by the previously mentioned MacMillan Collection. Recently, though, the staff has integrated other items that are either on loan to the museum or part of the permanent collection. The idea is that every time you visit the museum, even if you go often, you will experience something new and different.

Sometimes even regular tweaking isn’t enough to showcase the museum’s vast holdings, so special shows are created.

“We just had an exhibition called ‘Modern Masters Celebrate Line and Form,’” Bogard says. “We specifically mounted that exhibition because we looked at this rich treasure trove we have in storage and some of those works had never been displayed. They were interesting pieces that hadn’t fit any exhibitions so they just sat, waiting. We chose a thematic element, line and form, and we selected some really intriguing works—sculpture, paintings, drawings, photography—and we put together this incredible show. This is something we’ll be doing on a regular basis to showcase our holdings and to keep the museum experience fresh and interesting.”

The portion of the museum that even those with no interest in art are often familiar with is the Annenberg Theater. This was among the first parts of the building to be renovated. Renowned philanthropist Leonore Annenberg and famed designer Arthur Elrod collaborated on the original interior design, and the Board decided to remodel based on their original specs.

Thus, the chairs and curtains remain bright orange (Leonore Annenberg’s favorite color), and the carpeting is the same pattern it was in 1976. The upgrades here are things you don’t notice at first glance: more comfortable seats, and drastically improved sound, lighting, and projection equipment.

The 433 seat theater is used for a variety of purposes.

“We have a highly regarded film series that we do every year,” Bogard says. “This year we’ve started an association with the Palm Springs Film Society where they’re going to be choosing films to supplement our selections. We do live programming as well. We do our own series, where the Callaway Sisters are coming, Cheyenne Jackson is coming, and we also offer it as a rental space. ‘Menopause the Musical’ is coming back this year after a very successful run last year.”

The easiest way to become involved with the Palm Springs Art Museum is to become a member. Annual dues are inexpensive, as little as $50, and come with numerous perks. Members receive unlimited free admission to the museum, Museum Store discounts, discounts for classes and other events, use of the museum library, and invitations to member events.

The member event that is most popular with the GLBT community is the annual Meet the Museum party, held on Friday of White Party weekend. The party started as and continues to be a membership drive for the museum.

To attend, you simply have to join the museum or renew your membership. “We work pretty well with Jeffrey Sanker, who organizes the White Party,” Bogard says. “He structures his weekend so there are no competing events during our party. This year it’s 6 to 9 p.m., April 22nd.” Though the party is technically not a gay event—all members of the museum are welcome—the vast majority of attendees are gay.

“In many ways it’s a simple party. There are no themes, yet it is one of our most fun and sought-after events,” Bogard says. “For the last two years we’ve actually sold out. We’ve had to cap it because we have fire code restrictions on how many people we can have in the building. We had 1200 people the last two years, and that’s the maximum.”

The catered event offers live music and a free stylized photo gift. Two years ago the photos were given an Andy Warhol style pop art treatment; last year they were comic-booked, a la Roy Lichtenstein. “People come to this and they have a ball,” Bogard says. “When the party ends at 9 o’clock we’re physically pushing people out the door because they don’t want to leave.”

For people who can’t afford a membership or regular admission, the museum is still accessible. Entry is free every Thursday from 4 to 8 p.m., and all day on the second Sunday of each month. “We received a grant from the Berger Foundation to not only open the museum for free, but to provide programming on those days,” Bogard says. “So the second Sunday of every month we have a free film, we have a live presentation, we have an artist demonstration, we have art tours, and we have a family activity.”

IF YOU GO: The Palm Springs Art Museum is located at 101 Museum Drive in downtown Palm Springs. Admission is $12.50 for adults, $10.50 for seniors (62 and over), and $5 for students. Admission is free every Thursday from 4 to 8 p.m., and all day on the second Sunday of each month. For more information call (760) 322-4800 or log onto the museum's website.