Times Staff Writer

"We need to be really positive tonight," Elyse Grinstein counseled her audience during a Monday night meeting at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art.

Grinstein, interim director of the institute, had called the open meeting to determine the fate of the financially and philosophically troubled organization in the wake of LAICA Director Robert Smith's recent resignation. More than 100 members of the art community turned out for the gathering that promised everyone a four-minute chance to be heard.

Most of the 35 or so speakers heeded Grinstein's advice, but negative aspects were not suppressed. The worst news came from board members, not once, not twice but thrice: "There is no money. That's the bottom line," Merle Glick said.

"This place cannot exist for another month without help," Kharlene Boxenbaum declared.

Murray Gribin put it more precisely: "We have a deficit somewhat in excess of $50,000 to $70,000." He placed the institute's fixed annual income at $70,000 ($30,000 from 1,500 members' dues and $40,000 from the Advocates, a support group). "Everything else has to be raised," he said.

LAICA is at a crossroads, but the facts, hopes and fears expressed at the meeting had a familiar ring. Like most "alternative" art forums, the 10-year-old institute has never been on solid financial ground, and it has often been the focus of festering antagonism between artists who think the organization should represent their interests democratically and a director who has been perceived by some as an autocrat.

These issues resurfaced Monday night as art community members debated the viability of LAICA, the kind of leader needed, how the organization should serve its constituency and how to raise funds.

Grinstein revealed the board's plans to form a search committee for a director who would be expected to bring a constituency and a means of raising money. The director would then hire a curator and "get LAICA going" in the direction that seems to fit the community's needs. She said that the meeting was called to determine what artists and others wanted the organization to be and what kind of chief they would prefer.

Michael Smith, former director of Baxter Art Gallery at Caltech, stepped to the podium with a prepared speech and offered himself as a candidate for leadership. Apparently reacting to criticism of Robert Smith's style and what he sees as a trend toward curatorial willfulness, he advocated facilitating artists' work rather than imposing his personality on the institute.

Though he gained a few statements of support during the evening, he also drew the wrath of artists Ed Moses and James Hayward. "I think you ought to close the place," growled Moses, saying that it took a "madman" to direct LAICA and that "some neutral guy in a gray suit" (which Michael Smith was wearing) would fatally dilute the organization's impact.

Later, Hayward yelled from an adjacent room, "Don't elect somebody who wears a suit and reads a speech. Get a junkie. A junkie would be better than a suit."

Richard Sigmund got a round of applause for recommending that the board narrow the field of director applicants to three or four and present them at another open meeting so that the community could guide the choice. Another spokesman won approval for suggesting that the board choose two directors, one to take care of finances, the other to manage artistic affairs. Finally, Gribin advocated a "benign dictatorship" (like Robert Smith's) as an absolute necessity for accomplishing anything in an organization that depends on volunteers.

As the 2 1/2-hour meeting wore on, a consensus was clear on only one item: The institute should continue to publish the LAICA Journal of art criticism and commentary. Artists repeatedly emphasized the need for The Journal, while expressing hopes that it could be improved.

Some advocates of paring down the institute's breadth of activities in the interests of raising quality argued that if all other efforts die, The Journal should survive. (The publication has currently reduced its deficit of $8,000 to $4,000, according to Gribin.)

Tom Wudl stood nearly alone in saying that an exhibition program was less important to the community welfare than providing services to artists, such as life insurance, doctor referrals, real estate advice and studio exchanges. Among those who disagreed, Jim Murray defended LAICA's exhibition record, saying, "We need a space for art to fail as well as for art to succeed."

Sentiment generally stacked up behind keeping LAICA open as a forum for local artists--particularly those who are emerging or do work that is unlikely to be shown elsewhere--and against seeking grants that require bringing in art from afar. Several artists advocated open shows organized around a theme as a means of engaging widespread interest.

"The driving force of LAICA is the young, the desperate and the hopeful," said artist and board member Richard Newton, noting that the promise of a show is what attracts artists to work for the organization.

Some observers have questioned the need for the institute in a rapidly growing art scene. Hal Glicksman, a member of the founding committee for the proposed Santa Monica Museum of Art, commented that the new Museum of Contemporary Art and the County Museum of Art's new wing for modern and contemporary art have "temporarily sopped up money" from potential contributors to LAICA, but that interest in art is growing so rapidly that there is room for "a multiplicity of organizations."

Suggestions on how to solve financial woes were in noticeably short supply. One of the evening's most frequent refrains was, "I'm an artist. I don't know how to raise money."

Summing up the predicament, Gribin said that LAICA has always been "long on ideas" and short of people and resources to carry them out. "It's all the same, like Cincinnati," said a woman who had followed the institute's progress for its entire life.

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