President Starr, Rethink Pomona's Art Museum Plan

President G. Gabrielle Starr is inheriting a poorly designed and thoughtless plan for the construction of a new art museum. She doesn't have to keep it. (Courtesy of Machado Silvetti and Pomona College)

Dear President Starr,

Welcome! You arrive at a propitious time. Pomona College is poised to construct a new art museum and, though it has legally prevailed against a neighborhood group supporting the integrity of College Avenue, the existing plan faces widespread opposition. It doesn’t respect context, animate the streetscape, or require the integration of public arts and craft. As the first college administrator in Pomona’s history with a serious interest and academic training in aesthetic theory, there is an immediate need to put this expertise into practical effect.

Former president David Oxtoby and his handpicked arts administrator Katherine Howe stubbornly stuck to their original plan for three and a half years. They kept it under wraps to deflect criticism from a community process that would have easily revealed their failings. As a naive, single-purpose, self-absorbed, and architecturally insensitive approach, it perpetuates the single-focused academic strategy of an earlier age of plop buildings and plop art. It doesn’t enrich the street life and build a common narrative of connection and interaction.

It is no wonder that Pomona no longer phrases it as a “landmark” but rather as an “academic study center.” Mrs. Renwick, whose residence, now on rollers, commemorated so much early town and gown mixing, must be turning (maybe rolling) in her grave!

It appears to be a self-serving effort to puff up the resumes of David Oxtoby and Kathleen Howe at the long-term expense of the college which is now so fat and rich that it appears unable to think straight and strategically. They clung to an overly hierarchical process that left judgements to the president, who may not have much sensibility in the area. Certainly neither the president nor the Board of Trustees, described by a former chairman of said board as a “rubber stamp,” have made any serious effort to understand the dynamics of the “new urbanism.”

Indeed how many could define what that should mean for the college? Did they ever collectively discuss the principles of interactive uses combining the very physicality of the design that builds a broader constituency? Or did they just plot how they could finesse a cockamamie design through that their consultants had proposed with enough lawyers and PR unction?

In my view, this is an all-too-prevalent example of modern white collar crime which uses the rich resources of a distinguished college to perpetuate old-fashioned thinking at the long-term expense of that institution. As the college only has one opportunity, why not require more community outreach, more introspection about the interdependence of college and community, and more sophisticated outside assistance to obtain this interaction?

Hire the original architect and planner Stefanos Polyzoides, who put together the zoning plan for Pomona’s cultural district. He has the experience and the urbane sensibility to move away from a design that is a sprawling shopping center of an homage to 1950s modernism. Replace it with a tall, thinner structure appropriately scaled to Pomona’s most distinguished buildings, with their classical antecedents and grace.

This can fuse village and college both with an urban passage, a plan for mixed uses, and enough animation at the periphery to draw community and students through the passageway. A rich integration of craft and art can support this narrative. Why didn’t David Oxtoby and Kathleen Howe reach out and embrace our offer to pay for the art? Were they afraid that it slows down the project and reduces their credit? This seems perverse.

Look at their original plan. It did not incorporate the community proposals for a mixed use building of a scale consistent with the adjacent Seaver House just to the north. It didn’t incorporate the idea of a community room as a meeting place of higher quality than Pomona possesses. This could generate a constituency of patrons that Pomona sorely needs to build a rather thin art collection. It didn’t incorporate a cinema for documentaries and foreign films, which used to exist across the street in the 1960s, nor did they animate the entryway to the community with a cafe, as Yale and Wellesley did.

Apparently, the city manager is intimidated by Pomona and the planning department is reluctant to use their review authority in the face of a college that has assembled a legal and PR team to get its way without regard to the larger community.

So, President Starr, the time is ripe for you to lead and not to follow. Pomona can swallow a little pride and get this right. I personally pledge five million dollars in my charitable remainder trust to assist you in the refashioning, the planning and design and paying for the integration of public art. The new gateway to the Pomona Organic Farm did this with the help of the American Museum of Ceramic Art in the neighboring city of Pomona. This demonstrates the concept of playing in the sand box with other institutions. Please set an example so we can “hail Pomona” once again for courage and leadership that builds a sense of responsibility between centers of power – one definition of a working culture.

Ronald Lee Fleming PO '63 was elected as a fellow of The American Institute of Certified Planners based on his pioneering work for mainstreet revitalization projects in the 1970s and his placemaking books. He has also been a trustee of many organizations.