Thousand Oaks Art Museum Effort Keeps Moving Forward

Baby steps and occasional milestones continue to propel plans for a fine art and design museum in Thousand Oaks.

Backers of the proposed California Museum of Art Thousand Oaks hope to open an interim space in the next couple of months and have introduced a new director of operations with a background in opening museums.

"We have a goal of establishing an interim museum and that is critical to our community outreach," said CMATO board Chairman Dick Johnson. "This is a lengthy process and it will take time, and we're anxious to get the interim museum up and running."

Supporters' long-range plan is to build a permanent location on land west of Dallas Drive, in front of the Civic Arts Plaza parking structure.

The interim museum, called CMATO Jr., will help build momentum in the community, Johnson said. Board members are looking for places near the Civic Arts Plaza for the facility that will serve as a startup learning and operations center.

The land west of Dallas Drive was purchased by the now-defunct Thousand Oaks Redevelopment Agency in 2010 for $3.25 million. With the dissolution of redevelopment agencies by the state, the property will remain with the city and incorporated into a state-mandated, long-range property management plan. City Manager Scott Mitnick reaffirmed the land will be used for the museum, and Assistant City Attorney Chris Norman said he expects museum leaders and the city will enter into a memorandum of understanding at some point.

The interim museum will be paid for with money raised through the Vision Fund, a three-year campaign started this year with the goal of raising $3 million. The Vision Fund will also pay for art education outreach programs and planning the capital and endowment campaigns for the permanent building.

Museum boosters have been making the rounds to various community groups, such as the Greater Conejo Valley Chamber of Commerce, to generate support and potentially gifts for the fund, and to outline plans for the CMATO. Planners tout the museum as a cultural hub that will complete the Civic Arts Plaza, enhance quality of life in the region and help attract new businesses and people.

While the museum board is years away from deciding what types of collections, if any, to acquire, it did hire a new director of operations.

Bill Mercer, a veteran museum administrator and appraiser, will take over the reins from Fran Brough, CMATO's part-time executive director, who is retiring after three years in the position. Mercer's position will also be part time.

"We can't afford a full-time (director) right now, but we do need someone with museum administration experience," Johnson said. "We are really looking forward and moving forward. That's a milestone to get someone on our team with a real museum background."

Mercer, who will begin in March, has more than 20 years in the business. He has served as curator for the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Portland Art Museum, museum director for the Montana Historical Society and as curatorial consultant for the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.

A former Moorpark College student and basketball player, Mercer attended CSU Northridge and received his master's in museum administration at Texas Tech University. He specializes in Native American, pre-Colombian, African, Oceanic and Asian art.

Mercer said there is a potential audience because of the Conejo Valley's demographics and the fact it can be difficult to visit the Getty museums or the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Getting a museum off the ground is one of the most difficult things someone in the profession can do, Mercer said, adding that the outcome is a wonderful accomplishment. He was involved in two major expansions, costing more than $50 million each, and as head of Montana's Historical Society museum he oversaw construction of a new facility.

"It is great," Mercer, a San Fernando Valley native, said. "It's very exciting and rather overwhelming as well. You want to create a foundation that will be lasting, sustainable and really be a credit to the community."