Not long after Malcolm Warner started as executive director of the Laguna Art Museum, Gerald Buck invited him to check out works by California artists in his personal collection.
Warner spent a remarkable afternoon in downtown Laguna at Buck’s elbow, one of few to gain entry to an unmarked historic building turned private museum that houses portions of a massive collection little known by the public.
Before entering, Buck politely asked Warner to remove his shoes. “He personally put blue booties on your feet,” recalled Warner, who appreciated Buck’s attentiveness to conserving works by modern masters such as Peter Alexander and Richard Diebenkorn.
Inside, the hidden gem outfitted with sophisticated lighting, temperature control and storage systems “would be the envy of any museum director, including me,” Warner conceded.
For the last year, he and others in California art circles have known the 3,200-work Buck Collection, considered the greatest of its kind ever assembled in private hands, had eluded their grasp. The Emerald Bay resident died at 73 in 2013 within months of the death of his wife, Bente.
This week, UC Irvine announced it will receive the private trove worth millions of dollars. Administrators also laid out an ambitious five-year plan to build a $150 million campus museum to house the works and an academic center for their appreciation.
“This gift instantly puts UCI on the map as the premier collection and study center at the heart of California art,” said Stephen Barker, dean of UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts and executive director of the newly established UCI Museum and Institute for California Art.
Buck, too, appreciated scholarship, and studied the works of the 500 artists he collected, even taking notes at artist talks in order to refine his collecting skills, Warner recalled in an interview this week. “I’ve never met a more dedicated self-educator than Gerald,” he said.
That knowledge reflected in the pieces included in the Buck Collection, which were frequently loaned to fill out museum exhibitions. Works by Carlos Almaraz, one of Buck’s favorite artists, for instance, are part of a current Pacific Standard Time exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. His “Women of Oaxaca,” by Henrietta Shore, is included in the Laguna museum’s current PST exhibit as well.
The public should soon see more samples of Buck’s picks. Barker intends to start showing selections from the collection, possibly in the campus gallery, which will play a role in supporting fundraising required for the museum. “It will be such a delight to bring it out of the mothballs,” he said.
The Laguna space, though, will remain off limits, too small for public use, he said.
Buck’s daughter, Christina, of San Diego, administered her father’s collection. She told Barker he had explored museums around the state as possible homes for the collection, comprised of works by artists from a century ago to contemporary powerhouses who worked in a range of genres, from plein-air to hard-edge abstraction to figurative work.
His priorities included keeping the works in Orange County, where he made his fortune as a real estate developer, and academic research, but Buck hadn’t contacted anyone at the campus before his death, Barker said. “The knowledge of why we became a recipient passed away with Gerald,” he said.
Since the Laguna Art Museum also specializes in California art, Warner made a personal pitch for the collection. “Before Gerald died, I let him know we would do anything to be the repository of his collection,” said Warner, who was gently rebuffed. Buck told him there was ample time to make plans.
The same week in 2014 that attorneys disclosed Buck’s bequest to UCI, Barker learned plein air painting collector Joan Irvine Smith also planned a similar gift. “It was a jaw-dropping week,” he said.
At a university best known for science research, Barker isn’t sure how a new museum anchored by two art collections will influence the campus, but he is certain it will.
“California art has not been taken all that seriously,” said Barker, who described Buck’s collection as representing the very best art of the last half-century. “My job and pleasure is to make others understand that vision.”