Image: Maggi Owens (center) with Ross and Phyllis Escalette
It is with great sadness that the Escalette Collection announces the death of its former Curator, Maggi Owens, on August 15, 2022 in Palm Desert, CA. Owens made an inestimable contribution to Chapman’s campus over the long period she served, first as a volunteer, then co-director of the Guggenheim Gallery, then Curator of the growing Art Collections. Her energy, discerning eye, and friendships with artists (both established and emerging,) helped to transform Chapman’s physical environment into a showcase for vibrant and inspiring artworks.
President Emeritus Jim Doti reflects, “As we walk through our beautiful Chapman buildings and grounds, we sometimes forget the Chapman champions that provided over the years so much tender loving care to bring an aesthetic touch and sensibility to our campus. Maggi Owens was one of those special champions. I hope we all can take a moment to remember Maggi when we stop to admire one of our works of art.”
Owens joined the Guggenheim Gallery in 1991 and subsequently earned a master’s degree in exhibition design and museum studies at Cal State Fullerton in 1995. In 1997, she became co-director of the Guggenheim with Richard Turner, who founded the gallery in 1972, and brought eminent artists such as Edward Kienholz and Kim Abeles to campus. Her curatorial work for the Guggenheim Gallery included such stretching shows as “The Waiting Room,” an interactive installation by San Francisco artist Richard Kamler examining lives affected by the death penalty. Her generosity and adventurous spirit introduced students to fresh and often challenging ideas, as Turner recalls “Her tastes were very different from mine, and her ideas made the shows much broader and more inclusive. She was resourceful and energetic. She and I would often drive up to L.A. together and look at galleries and discover artists. I learned a lot from her because we were just interested in different areas of the art world. Maggi had a bawdy sense of humor. I certainly enjoyed that and appreciated it. Our banter was enjoyable and silly at the same time that we were talking seriously about art.” Another colleague who witnessed Owens’ charm and dedication was the artist David Lee: “Maggi and I spent a lot of time popping into studios, galleries and homes over the years. It turned out that she had this great talent to just ask for art, and in most cases the artists, dealers, or collectors just gave it to her.”
Owens’ energy and acumen impressed Orange County entrepreneur and Chapman University Trustee Ross Escalette, who with his wife Phyllis established an endowment in 2010 to support the newly minted Escalette Permanent Art Collection at Chapman. Phyllis and Ross’s daughter Suzanne Escalette Ellingson recalls, “The light behind the Escalette Permanent Art Collection was indeed Maggi Owens. She guided my parents through this project as a mentor and friend. She has left behind an amazing legacy and will be missed.”
Jeannie Denholm, generous donor to the Escalette and former member of the Collection’s advisory board spent many years enjoying her close friendship and professional expertise. “What I loved most about Maggi was first and foremost our supercharged and shared passion for art, and secondly her bold artistic decisions for the campus collection. Maggi selected artworks authentically, vacillating between art that she loved because it was just plain beautiful, or art that she knew was profound, important, and significant in its potentially controversial content that needed to be seen, heard, and discussed. She was a profound mentor for me. Her art choices reflected her personality – sentimental one moment and super “fiery” the next! She found joy in the unexpected and shaking things up but never discounted anything that was romantic, sentimental and beautiful.”
Since joining Chapman in 2016 as the Escalette’s new Director, I have been grateful each day to Maggi. While I am sad that I never had the opportunity to meet her, I feel that I have come to know her in a different way, through art that continually surprises and inspires me. September 3 was the anniversary of Maggi’s official start at Chapman University, and I know that we will mark this special day each year, as we start a new semester and share with new students the artworks she brought to campus. Our time together is enhanced by Maggi’s legacy.