L.B. Art Scene: New Life in the Shadow of L.A.

Times Staff Writer

Wim Griffith was born and raised here.

This is where he went to high school, took his first steps toward adulthood and began developing the talents that were to illuminate his life.

Yet when it came to establishing a career, he moved to Los Angeles.

"If you're an artist living in Long Beach . . . there's no way to get going," said Griffith, 36, who makes his living as a muralist.

Three years ago, he returned to live and work in the city of his birth. "I like Long Beach," Griffith said. "I love the ocean, the people, the community, the . . . feel of the place."

But his work has yet to be shown locally. Although it graces walls from Santa Monica to Riverside and a gallery on Melrose Avenue, the artist said, most Long Beach residents have never seen it.

"I wish I could say that I'm exhibiting here," he said, "but I'm not. It's hard enough (to get a show) in a big city. It should be easier in your hometown, yet it's more difficult."

Christopher Schumaker, another Long Beach artist who moved away only to return later for personal reasons, has a different feeling altogether about the place where he lives and works. "I'm trying to publicly disassociate myself from Long Beach," said Schumaker, 35, a sculptor and teacher at Long Beach City College.

'Gateway Is L.A.'

Though his work has been shown in Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco, he said, he has chosen not to exhibit his sculptures in Long Beach.

"I just don't think Long Beach can offer the visibility I need at this point in my career," he said. "I've opened the gateway and the gateway is L.A."

Griffith and Schumaker represent different reactions to the same issue.

As many as 400 working artists reside in Long Beach, according to Mary Sullivan, visual arts coordinator for the city's Public Corp. for the Arts. And all of them, she said, eventually must come to terms with the same fact: They live in an area traditionally considered an artistic backwater.

"It's slowly getting better," said Sullivan. "But it's very difficult and we're a little behind the times."

Specifically, she said, though works by Long Beach artists are generally as good as those being produced anywhere else, local artists suffer from a lack of opportunities for exhibition and a lack of serious attention from elsewhere when they do manage to exhibit.

'Iowa' Image

Local artists and art lovers blame everything from the city's traditional image as "Iowa-By-The-Sea" to its proximity to Los Angeles, which, they say, has prevented the development of a separate and distinct artistic climate like that in Orange County.

And they also point to the fact that serious critics and collectors who are based in Los Angeles seem to consider Long Beach too distant for easy access.

"If they have thousands of artists within walking distance of them, why should they get on the freeway?" said Norm Looney, a painter who lives and works in a large studio on Ocean Boulevard.

Schumaker said the local market for serious art is relatively thin, and he attributes that at least in part to the "yuppie mentality" of the city's would-be art collectors. "There's lots of money here, but art collecting isn't something these people are into," he said.

Those who do collect art, he said, still tend to buy in Los Angeles. "In Long Beach people enjoy going to an opening and clinking a glass of wine at best, but they aren't interested in really supporting the art community," Schumaker said.

Added Tim Isham, an abstract painter who has been in town for six years but said that almost all of his sales are in Los Angeles: "The people who have the ability to finally make an art market exist in Long Beach . . . aren't properly educated or don't seem to have the taste."

But things are changing, some artists and patrons say.

Shakti Gallery

In 1980, Dixie Swift opened what she said was the city's only contemporary art gallery at the time, the 900-square-foot Shakti Gallery.

"It became a catalyst for the energy to begin growing again among local artists who had remained obscure," said Swift, now community arts coordinator for the city. Not since a brief period in the 1960s, she said, had such excitement existed among Long Beach artists.

Along the way, however, she made a couple of decisions that by 1984 forced the gallery to close. One was to move into a larger building, which greatly increased her overhead. The other was to exhibit almost exclusively the work of Long Beach artists.

"If I'd had the ability to bring in name artists from outside Long Beach I might have survived," Swift said.

She believes she helped plant the seed, however, for what was to come next.

Seven months ago Mark Moore, director and owner of the 3,500-square-foot Works Gallery, moved his operation from Newport Beach to Long Beach. He said he moved his gallery on Broadway in Belmont Heights because, he said, "we felt we could draw a more sophisticated audience here."

And less than two weeks ago the Family Health Program, a health maintenance organization with outlets throughout Southern California, inaugurated a 900-square-foot gallery in Long Beach adjacent to a senior health center it operates. The gallery is called the Hippodrome Gallery after the old Hippodrome Skating Rink that was once on the Alamitos Avenue site.

Change in Climate

These galleries, along with the existing Long Beach Museum of Art and galleries at Long Beach City College and Cal State Long Beach, are beginning to change the city's artistic climate, local art lovers say. Ironically, however, some of the directors and curators believe they can best help Long Beach artists by not exhibiting their work too often.

"The minute you attach a 'Long Beach artist' tag to a gallery, people automatically assume you couldn't make it in L.A.," said Moore. "You lose the whole L.A. crowd."

To avoid that pitfall, he said, his gallery intends to show "quality artists" from throughout Southern California, including Long Beach artists whose work is up to par. Such a mix, he said, will ultimately improve the artistic stature of Long Beach.

Kent Smith, the curator in charge of painting and visual arts at the Long Beach Museum of Art, has a similar point of view. "It's a matter of interest," said Smith, whose museum has not put on a show of specifically Long Beach artists in 3 1/2 years. "There has been a general feeling that just doing a Long Beach exhibition does not do a great deal for the artists. It looks like an incestuous situation where you are showing the works of people you know and friends of yours."

Other developments, meanwhile, are being hailed as positive.

A year ago the Public Corp. for the Arts set up a registry of local artists featuring descriptions and, whenever possible, slides of their work. One result has been a number of commissions going to Long Beach artists for major public and corporate projects. The Public Corp. for the Arts is a nonprofit, umbrella group that works to promote and stimulate the arts in the city.

Private Funding

And in a development many believe will lead to enhanced funding and stature for the Long Beach Museum of Art, a private foundation has tentatively agreed to take over management of the city-owned museum sometime this summer or fall. The new Long Beach Museum of Art Foundation, which would continue to receive city funding, would also be able to seek private funds not available to a city-operated institution.

"People in Long Beach are living in one of the most vital regions for promoting art in the United States," said museum curator Smith. "While we may not be right at the epicenter of the L.A. art scene, as the population grows there is a larger chance for a thriving art community in Long Beach to develop."

David Romeo, 36, is a painter who grew up in Long Beach and eventually had to move to Orange County to make a living teaching and selling his work. But during a recent visit to prepare for an upcoming show at The Works Gallery--his first commercial showing in Long Beach--he said he found the community much changed since his departure in 1979. "The place has sort of taken on a renaissance quality," Romeo said. "It's almost a little Berkeley."

Others have similar perceptions.

Finds Sophistication

Laddie John Dill, a painter and sculptor who was born in Long Beach but lives in Venice, said he has found Long Beach audiences every bit as sophisticated as those anywhere else.

And Looney, who characterized his work as "large, colorful, happy, up art," said he stays in Long Beach because of the city's relatively low rents, clean air and "absolutely perfect" light.

"Years ago I looked into getting a place in downtown L.A. and found the dirty environment depressing," he said. "My place here is like Disneyland compared to downtown."

For artists like Schumaker, however, all this is of little solace. He said he has no desire to wait for some vague artistic renaissance. "I just don't feel that Long Beach is an important cultural center. We have all the right ingredients, but it just hasn't jelled yet."

So, despite the fact that his family lives here and he likes the environment, he's thinking seriously of moving closer to L.A.

"It's not a matter of ego," said the artist. "It's a matter of proper professional priorities."

He thought a moment before continuing.

"I'm breaking out of the Long Beach artist mode," he said.

'The minute you attach a 'Long Beach artist' tag to a gallery, people assume you couldn't make it in L.A.' --Gallery owner Mark Moore

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