By Mike Nelson | Photos by Viktor Budnik
Roya Alt’s appreciation for art can be traced to her formative years in Marina del Rey, when family time often meant a trip to a local art gallery.
“The County Museum of Art in L.A., Norton Simon in Pasadena, Huntington in San Marino, Fowler at UCLA — my parents really believed in deepening our family connection by going to museums,” recalls Alt, now in her second year as director of the recently reopened-to-the-public California Museum of Art Thousand Oaks (CMATO).
“So I’ve always felt connected to art, and when my family and I moved to the Conejo Valley five years ago, I was excited to learn about CMATO, because I saw it as a way to build empathy and community. And now that I’m working here, I feel like I’ve come full circle.”
Alt’s first 18 months on the job have been plenty exciting, and challenging, since they have coincided with the coronavirus pandemic that has forced all businesses and organizations, including nonprofits, to re-think and re-invent how they operate and what they offer.
“But throughout my professional career, I’ve worked almost exclusively for nonprofits,” notes Alt, who spent 20 years as senior director of public relations for the city of Hope before coming to CMATO. “And in nonprofits, you encounter all kinds of challenges that excite and frustrate you, depending on how you handle them.”
“So it was an interesting time to start my new role,” she continues with a smile. “And I knew we’d have to be inventive and creative.”
That meant moving all of CMATO’s exhibitions online, for starters. Likewise for Family Art Day, started in 2019 as opportunities for families to develop both their own artwork around a particular theme, and a stronger connection to one another. Or, as CMATO’s mission statement proclaims, “to enrich and inspire our community through exceptional experiences with the visual arts.”
Alt has also overseen the launch of a virtual “artist workshop” series, in which participants receive online education from noted teaching artists, plus an online lecture series. That includes an Oct. 21 introduction to California Impressionism, a central style in CMATO’s current exhibition GIFTED: Collecting the Art of California at Gardena High School, 1919-1956.
“And people have responded to what we’ve offered,” Alt says, with obvious delight. “We’ve even had folks joining our online presentations from England and Canada, which means we’re building a global community for people who want that connection to the arts.”
Such responses affirm her own goal of bringing the community together through art. A Los Angeles native and graduate of Westchester High School and UCLA with a degree in Latin American history, Alt is a fierce advocate for arts education, asserting that “it is central to not only the education but the development of the whole person.”
GIFTED exemplifies this assertion in a unique way. The extraordinary collection was compiled by more than three decades’ worth of senior classes at Gardena High School, who gifted the school with works of art, amassing what is today widely acknowledged as one of the nation’s outstanding collections of early 20th century California art.
“And that happened because students received a good education and appreciation for art,” notes Alt, who wants the same opportunities for all children.
“GIFTED is such an important legacy and gift to future generations,” she continues, “because you see what happens when the community prioritizes art. It shows you how arts can tie generations of students to the community. All who come in to see GIFTED spend quite a bit of time; they read every label, and it’s a source of comfort and inspiration, especially now.”
During the pandemic, Alt was struck by the images of people in Italy, confined to their homes by the pandemic’s severity, stepping onto their balconies and creating music and art for their neighbors to hear and see.
“I think COVID brought to the fore how important art is, even if art is not always top of everyone’s mind,” she says. “During that period of social distance and isolation, we read books. We sought out opportunities to be creative, to express our feelings — and, above all, to connect to each other.”
That’s one main reason why CMATO is focused on audience participation. With the GIFTED exhibit, for example, participants are invited to contribute via iPad their hopes for the future as they reflect on what the graduates of Gardena High once envisioned.
“We want people to do more than look at the work,” says Alt. “We want them to participate in what we do, and so we’ve developed structured opportunities to make that happen, such as the Family Art Days.”
Her own family museum visits, Alt believes, encouraged her appreciation for a diversity of styles, from the “Old Masters” like Carravaggio and Van Gogh to more contemporary artists like Frida Kahlo and Marcel Duchamp. She also lists among her favorites a host of women artists — American sculptors Ruth Asawa and Beverly Pepper, French-American painter-sculptor Louise Bourgeois, and modern-day American visual artist Marilyn Minter.
And, with CMATO (established in 2008 and located in The Oaks Mall since 2018) recently reopened for free in-person visits, Alt is excited to be part of the museum’s effort to develop programs that speak to a wide range of interests.
“We want to take visitors to new levels of creativity,” she says. “We always look for emerging artists who might have an interesting point of view, and for opportunities to build up our arts education program. We want to provide support to families and teachers, for the good of the whole community.”
CMATO is open for in-person visits Friday-Sunday, noon-6 p.m. Admission is free; face coverings and social distancing are required. GIFTED: Collecting the Art of California at Gardena High School is on view through Jan. 9, 2022.