New UCI museum will showcase works from Joan Irvine Smith’s collection

Childhood memories of the Irvine Ranch inspired Joan Irvine Smith to start collecting California plein air paintings in 1990 – before many were familiar with the genre.

Joan Irvine Smith

Childhood memories of the Irvine Ranch inspired Joan Irvine Smith to start collecting California plein air paintings in 1990 – before many were familiar with the genre.

Now, much of her original collection will form the basis of a world-class museum coming to UC Irvine.

The UCI Institute and Museum for California Art will spotlight 1,200 works of art donated by The Irvine Museum, which Joan Irvine Smith founded in 1993.

For a quarter century, her son James Irvine Swinden oversaw the small museum from leased space on Von Karman Avenue. In 2016, he donated its works – one of the best collections of California Impressionist art anywhere – to UCI.

“I decided it was time to find a permanent home for the collection,” Swinden says. “It seemed important that it reside on the Irvine Ranch, and where better than UC Irvine?”

UCI will combine these 1,200 works of 19th century California art with 3,500 works of 20th century California art from late Newport Beach developer Gerald Buck to create something never before seen. “This will be the greatest museum for California art anywhere in the world,” says Executive Director Stephen Barker, dean of UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts.

The new museum will open within five years, fulfilling the vision of UCI’s original Master Plan.

As architect William Pereira designed it nearly 60 years ago, the museum will sit at the entrance of the university — adjacent to the Barclay Theatre — serving as a gateway between the university and the world.

Red and Green (1924) by Joseph Kleitsch

Love of the land

It seems fitting that Joan Irvine Smith was instrumental in launching the UCI Institute and Museum for California Art.  As a young child, she spent countless hours exploring the Irvine Ranch with her grandfather, James Irvine, developing a deep love of nature.

That drew her to California plein air paintings — an outdoor style that focuses on color and light. In the early 1990s, she collected more than 4,000 paintings, which she used to establish The Irvine Museum.

Swindon, her son, says they decided not to build a permanent museum in order to focus resources on the art, educational outreach and traveling exhibitions, adding: “The idea was to get it out there and share it.”

James Irvine Swinden, Chairman, UCI Institute and Museum for California Art advisory board

Home at last

On the Beach (1917) by Donna N. Schuster

The Irvine Museum provided free tours and books to school children. It placed its art in more than 70 institutions. And it took traveling exhibitions to museums in Paris, Krakow, Poland, and Madrid — breaking attendance records in all three cities.

“This art represents California in its pristine state,” says Swinden, pointing to a Granville Redmond landscape of California poppies, oaks and eucalyptus in front of the Sierra Nevada. “And part of our outreach has been to encourage respect for the environment.”

A quarter century after his mother first championed California plein air art for its depictions of nature, her collection is now gaining worldwide recognition — and a permanent home.

“This art offers a unique window into the history and culture of this region,” UCI’s Barker says. “And thanks to James Irvine Swinden, Joan Irvine Smith and her mother Athalie R. Clarke, we truly have the best collection of California Impressionist art in the world.”

About the Museum

WHAT: The UCI Institute and Museum for California Art


  • 4,700 works of California art
  • A research institute
  • A conservation center
  • Presentations, seminars, conferences and school tours
  • Involvement of all 13 UCI departments


  1. First Glimpse: A small exhibit of the rarely seen Buck Collection opens in September
  2. Permanent Home: The museum is expected to open within five years

WHERE: Adjacent to the Barclay Theatre