George James, a graduate of the school and artist who returned to teach social studies, has a special connection to the collection: It features one of his paintings.
“That was the biggest feather in my cap, because I grew up with this show, being inspired by it,” James said.
During the library construction project, much of the Ruth Stoever Fleming Collection of Southern California Art spent the past six years in storage.
The collection was named for a librarian at the school who started what became one of the West Coast’s most prestigious juried art shows during the mid-20th century.
Twenty-one paintings are now being installed on the library’s walls. The earliest nine paintings were given annually to the school by its senior class, beginning in 1935; Stoever assisted the students with their acquisitions.
When the gifting practice fell out of favor, Stoever decided to stage the art shows. From 1946 to 1966, the school purchased each of the annual show’s winning oil and watercolor paintings and added them to the school district’s collection.
At the height of the show’s fame, the school would receive 700 submissions competing for 70 spots in the show. Different critics would be invited to the show to serve as judges each year, so the school’s collection expanded far beyond plein air and into abstract Expressionism and more; in the show’s last year, the critics selected a pop art watercolor.
When the annual show came to a close, those who worked on it went on to form the Newport Beach Arts Commission, former Newport Harbor librarian John McGinnis said.
In the mid-1980s, McGinnis, James and their colleagues reassembled the collection. They scoured school sites to find them in storage closets, filing cabinets and administration offices throughout the district, rather than on display for the students.
The group raised $40,000 to stage a landmark one-week exhibition of the collected works, produce a limited-edition book and restore all of the paintings.