This place could definitely use more saddles.
At least, that’s what Anne Graumlich was thinking. Don’t get her wrong: The Ventura County Museum of History & Art, of which she is the newly christened “director of exhibitions and public programs,” has lots of them — from plain, worn-out brown ones to sleek, lavishly decorated black ones with flowing tassels, sparkling silver buckles and intricate designs woven into the leather. For Vaqueros, Cowboys & Charros, the exhibit showing through Nov. 26, the museum has placed on display a wealth of other items and artifacts illustrating the county’s rancher past: spurs, branding irons, cowboy boots, belt buckles, Nudie suits, machetes, guns and framed photographs of cattle ranches and feed lots in Santa Paula and Camarillo dating back as far as the late 1800s.
But, as they say, there’s always room for more saddles — or braided rawhide gear, or spade bits, or .36-caliber Navy Colt revolvers, or gorgeously hemmed black-and-white children’s charro outfits. Except when there isn’t.
“There’s a big story there; we’re just giving an introduction to it,” Graumlich says of the exhibit. “We could’ve done more if we had more space.” Not having enough space for the kind of tales she wants to tell is something she’s been dealing with since she became curator four years ago, and something the museum itself has been struggling with for three decades. “In order to tell a good story, you need a little bit of space to expand that story and bring in objects, photographs, information and even hands-on activities for children, so the exhibit makes sense to them. When you have more room, you can tell a story better.”
Luckily for Graumlich, her wish is finally coming true. Next spring, the museum will break ground on its first expansion project since it was built in the 1970s. It will increase the size of the complex by 18,000 square feet, adding: more display room for the museum’s personal collection as well as for touring exhibits; classrooms for its educational programs (of which there are currently zero); a 200-seat lecture hall; an expanded research library and gift shop; and, the coup de grace, an entirely new, distinctive look for what is right now a rather nondescript building.
The final price tag is somewhere between $8 and $9 million, including an endowment to help the place operate once its doors open, funded primarily through donations and a challenge grant from the city. As curator, Graumlich is especially excited about the additional exhibit space, but she says the truly important part is that the museum, as a whole, is at last stepping up to meet the “great demand for what we do.” “The good thing is, it’s growing evenly all the way around … No one area is taking precedent over another.”
The project represents the culmination of four years of planning, 10 years of conceptualizing and almost a century of growth, development and, some would say, historical degradation within the county. Landmarks have fallen, homegrown businesses have moved out and the thread tethering Ventura to its history — both ancient and relatively recent — has worn increasingly thin. If a museum’s job is to preserve the past as a means of guiding an area toward its future, then the expansion of the Ventura County Museum is happening just in the nick of time, with the future staring us in the face, and the past quickly becoming a distant memory.
“All by itself, it’s a nice amenity,” says Rick Cole, Ventura city manager, “but its real importance is as part of what the new Downtown Specific Plan calls ‘authenticity.’ … All over the planet, authenticity is under siege, which is making it more and more valuable. You can now go anywhere in the world and get a McDonald’s hamburger and wash it down with a Coke. Sure, there’s increasing discomfort locally, now that we’re seeing the first signs of chain stores and the loss of some mom-and-pops, but it’s precisely institutions like the Ventura County Museum … that anchor Ventura as a unique place with a unique history and culture at a time when commerce is becoming so bland and generic worldwide.”
Indeed, Ventura County recognized the significance of its unique history early on — earlier than most of California, according to Charles Johnson, the museum’s librarian since 1989. When the county courthouse was constructed in 1912, the Chamber of Commerce reserved a section of the bottom floor for the Society of Ventura County Pioneers, a group that had been collecting historical artifacts since 1891. They called it the Pioneer Museum.
“As soon as there was a place where the materials could be housed and protected,” Johnson says, “the collection has been growing.” Eventually, the collection grew to the point where it necessitated a move to its own place. In 1977, the collection came downtown to the building it sits in now and was renamed the Ventura Historical Museum. Ten years later, the name changed again, this time to the Ventura County Museum of History & Art. Adding “& Art” to its title “significantly changed” what the museum could collect and display, Johnson says, but it also made the need for a bigger space all the more crucial.
Aside from some remodeling, the museum has remained the same size since, even as the amount of stuff in its storage facility has swelled. According to executive director Tim Schiffer, only about 5 to 10 percent of the museum’s collection is able to be placed on public display at any one time. In addition, there is not enough room to fully accommodate the 5,000 elementary school students who pass through every year; and when featured artists come to discuss their work, they have to speak in the galleries themselves, which have limited capacity.
“In order to do what we do better, we need to expand,” Schiffer says. Talk of an expansion first surfaced toward the end of the 1990s, when the City of Ventura began to revise its vision for downtown. By that point, the museum had come to be viewed, along with the nearby San Buenaventura Mission, as an integral part of downtown’s cultural makeup, as well as a valuable tourist revenue-generating resource. The only problem was making it worth the drive. “We have to become more of a destination,” Schiffer says. “One woman asked, ‘Why would I drive 45 minutes for a museum I can see in 45 minutes?’ ”
Once the decision was made to expand, the museum held a design contest to determine what the new building was going to look like and who would have the opportunity to build it. The visual style of the museum is a crucial aspect of the project, says Robin Woodworth, director of development.
“If this is truly going to be the cultural hub of Ventura County, it needed a design that was distinctive yet blended in with the community.” Ultimately, the honor went to AC Martin Partners, a firm named after the influential Southern California architect who designed the Ventura County Courthouse that housed the original Pioneer Museum. Their idea was to combine the history of the area — using rock from the Santa Clara River and indicating on the sidewalk where the wall that once designated the parcel as the Mission orchard still stands beneath the earth — “with a more contemporary feeling, to also look into the future,” Woodworth says. It is a design that reflects the values of the museum, as well as the community it represents. It is, as Rick Cole might say, “authentic.”
“If you look at downtown, we’re not a theme park. We are a real place that has grown for 100 years along the street. So you’re going to see influences from different decades,” Graumlich says. “Things don’t all look alike, which is good. We’re not a cookie cutter place.”
For Graumlich, this is a project long in the making. But then again, so is the story of Ventura County. In roughly two years, she’ll have the space and material she needs to better tell that story, to fully link the Chumash to the Mission to the agricultural industry to suburban growth. It may have taken a while, but no one said history moves fast.
“Any time you want to expand, it has to be done carefully, with great care and thought so you end up with a well-planned project and you don’t go beyond your budget,” she says. “It’s always done with care and deliberation so when we open the doors, we’re happy with what we get.”