Pomona Faces Obstacles, Controversy in Bid for New Art Museum

Pomona's cottages were recently demolished to make room for a new art museum. The proposed relocation of the historic Renwick House (pictured in the background), however, has generated backlash from citizens who wish for College Avenue to remain as it is. (Liam Brooks • The Student Life)

Behind two locked doors at the back of the Pomona College Museum of Art is a small art classroom. Past that, dozens of paintings reside in a crowded vault, unseen by the public. Museum director Kathleen Howe said that she would love to put the paintings and other pieces of art on display, but there is simply no room to accommodate them all.

“We are woefully out of space here, in a lot of ways,” Howe said.

The museun turned its wheelchair accessible ramp into an exhibit area in the 1980s, canceled an Art After Hours program on Jan. 19 due to rain and a lack of indoor space, and has been forced to turn away art donations because the storage area is already overflowing.

The original building was constructed in 1958, before features such as temperature and humidity controls, a loading dock, and a fire suppression system became industry standard. Because the museum lacks these features, it does not meet certain standards that would allow the college to host certain traveling exhibits, according to Howe.

And because of the lack of exhibition space, there is a lengthy waiting list to curate exhibits.

“We are so jammed for exhibition space that if somebody wants to do an exhibition, they might have to wait two years,” Howe said, recalling that she had to turn away a professor who wanted to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in October 2016.

But there’s hope for the overcrowded museum. A larger, climate-controlled facility has been in the works for a number of years, and Pomona’s 2015 Master Plan calls for a new museum to be constructed between Bonita Avenue and Second Street along College Avenue.

(Courtesy of Pomona College)

Demolition of Pomona’s cottages, which occupied the space, was completed last week. The relocation of the historic Renwick House to nearby Wig Beach—also called for in the Master Plan—is a much more complicated and controversial issue, though.

Pomona's cottages were demolished between Jan. 16 and 20.

“Moving the Renwick House was not something that many people were in favor of,” said David Shearer, executive director of Claremont Heritage, a non-profit organization “devoted to the preservation of the history and historic character of Claremont.”

“In terms of history and heritage and preservation, the context of where something is built is very important in preserving the historic integrity of it,” he said. “To just disregard that history … didn’t make much sense to a lot of people.”

Shearer and other community members attended planning and City Council meetings last year to advocate leaving the historic College Avenue as it is. Shearer also met with Howe and Pomona President David Oxtoby, but said they were “not receptive at all” to alternate locations for the museum.

Shearer said that in general, the Pomona administration was unwilling to “even evaluate fully other potential sites.”

But Marylou Ferry, Pomona's Chief Communications Officer, wrote in an email to TSL that that’s exactly what the college has done for several years. Ferry said both Bridges Auditorium and the parking lot north of Seaver Theatre—now occupied by the studio art building—were considered as museum locations.

"However, the primary reason for rejecting both sites is their internal campus location," Ferry wrote, "resulting in a loss of public visibility and connection to the larger Claremont community, qualities fundamental to the Museum’s mission."

Ultimately, the City Council voted 3-2 in May 2016 to adopt a resolution approving the Master Plan, which would allow for the relocation of the Renwick House.

That was not the end of the issue, however. A group called Citizens to Save College Avenue is currently suing the city of Claremont over a dispute regarding its Environmental Impact Report, which was created for Pomona’s Master Plan. The trial was originally set for today, but was rescheduled for Feb. 9 because the judge has been sick.

"The EIR didn't follow (California Environmental Quality Act) guidelines," said Mary Stoddard, a member of Citizens to Save College Avenue. "It didn't analyze sufficiently the impacts associated with (moving) the Renwick House."

Stoddard said the report is also inconsistent with the Village Design Plan, which she said calls for the west side of College Avenue to "remain residential in character."

The city "did things for Pomona that they would not have done for any other developer," she said. 

If the city loses, it may have to redo the report, potentially delaying the entire Master Plan.

"The City Council would have to vote again and the environmental analysis would be different, so yes it is possible that votes could change," said Brian Desatnik, the city's director of community development. Additionally, March's City Council election, in which two seats are up for grabs, could potentially affect a future vote.

And although the City Council approved the Master Plan last year, it has yet to vote on whether to uphold the city architectural commission’s approval of the museum project itself—that will happen on Feb. 14.

Then, the museum package must be approved by Pomona’s Board of Trustees.

“I just came back from a meeting with the Rembrandt Club, which is one of our supporters of the arts on campus,” Howe said, “and somebody said, ‘When will you open?’” She shrugged.

Ferry, however, is not concerned by the lawsuit.

"We are confident we will prevail and we are moving forward with initial preparations for the site and other necessary pre-construction work," she wrote.

One strident museum backer eagerly awaiting its opening is Adam Starr PO ’18, the museum’s curatorial intern. Starr is the only student currently showing art, his curated Andy Warhol exhibition having been in the works since last spring.

“In the middle of the gallery that my Warhol (show is in), there’s a door, just a door that goes to storage in the middle of the gallery,” Starr said, pointing out another reason to switch to a more expansive building. "This space is not designed as a museum.”

The new building will include both a formal exhibition space and two galleries designed to be curricular, so students can show art as well.

An interior rendering of the new art museum. (Courtesy of Pomona College)

Ron Fleming PO ’63 wants even more from the space, however. The outspoken Pomona alumnus has offered several times to support financially a project that is grander in scale, similar to the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, which has a cinema and café.

Fleming thinks such a building would “serve both the college and community,” but said that his suggestions have been rebuffed by Pomona.

“There’s just a level of recalcitrance here that is quite astonishing,” said Fleming, who hopes incoming Pomona President G. Gabrielle Starr will be more receptive to his views. “I just haven’t seen much effort to really understand the dynamics of a livable place.”

Fleming recently published a letter to the editor in the Claremont Courier describing his ideas for the new museum.

“If the college wants to vault to artistic greatness, it should build a comfortable place that attracts a broad conversation with artists and patrons across the region,” he wrote in the letter.

Howe said Pomona has spoken to Fleming many times about his proposal; she thinks the scale of it is “inappropriate” for Pomona.

“What’s frustrating to me is that our goals are pretty much parallel,” she said. “He’s talking about a museum as a cultural center that brings people together, that provides space for the community and the college to interact.”

Despite the setbacks and criticism, Ferry wrote that Pomona feels "very positive" about the new museum.

"The current legal hurdle comes after three years of public and community meetings where we have taken important input from the community, commissioners and elected officials," she wrote. "The Master Plan that includes the museum has won support from the vast majority of the town and gown communities with a great deal of positive testimony from merchants, artists, educators and others, as well as the majority of Claremont’s civic leaders."