San Diego County Arts Writer

The year 1985 was, with few exceptions, one of steady, if uninteresting, growth for San Diego’s cultural arts. While a proposed sculpture by New York artist Ellsworth Kelly and the San Diego Symphony’s conversion of the Fox Theatre attracted the greatest attention, local artists and some pint-sized cultural institutions again showed why they should not be overlooked.

As indicated by scores of sold-out performances, a number of residents were entranced by the arts offerings in the county’s snug, storefront or below ground level cultural hideaways.

Few theatrical productions in San Diego had the self-assured emotional punch of “Billy Bishop Goes to War” at the North Coast Repertory Theatre. The tiny Solana Beach stage company was one of a handful of small theaters that offered first rate performances, using actors who are technically non-professionals. At the Bowery Theatre a dozen actresses displayed impressive skills in “Talking With.”

The chic little Gaslamp Quarter Theatre in 5 1/2 years has found its metier in staging plays with in-depth, unhurried character development. In terms of cast and staging, the Gaslamp’s production of Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming,” was one of the finest shows produced in San Diego this year.


In the visual arts, a number of local artists received a big validation in the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art’s “A San Diego Exhibition: Forty-Two Emerging Artists” and from the accompanying response to it, “More is More,” a Salon des Refuses , at the La Jolla Public Library for those miffed at not being selected for the museum show.

Among local painters sculptors, photographers and installation artists whose works attracted attention this year were Raul Guerrero, Ernest Silva, Jay Johnson, Wick Alexander, David Avalos, Kenneth Capps, Gary Ghirardi, Walter Cotten, Suda House, Frank Cole and Mario Lara. In the performance art and alternative performance arena Philip-Dimitri Galas and Poyesis Genetica, with Sara-Jo Berman, Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Luke Theodore Morrison, made avant gard-ish waves.

San Diego’s two major art museums tended to focus on collections and collecting in an effort to encourage residents to begin collecting--the strongest direct support of the visual arts. The San Diego Museum of Art’s “Fortissimo! Thirty Years From the Richard Brown Baker Collection of Contemporary Art,” was a stunning example of one man’s encyclopedic taste and passion for collecting. Where else but in Baker’s collection could one find Franz Kline’s celebrated “Wanamaker Block,” or Hans Hofmann’s abstract Expressionist “Fortissimo,” or “Blam,” a major piece by Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, among other canvases by surrealists, collage artists and photo realists.

Two other exhibitions at the Museum of Art, highlighting collections, one private, the other public, drew crowds. Forty paintings by Dutch and Flemish masters in a handsome collection from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts were exhibited with drawings by French romanticist Jean Louis Gericault. The museum’s current show, “American Masters: The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection,” through Jan. 12, is attracting sizable crowds. A selection of American paintings from the world’s second-largest private collection, the exhibit--though not jammed with masterpieces--is an exemplary survey of American painters and movements from the 18th Century to the 1970s.


While San Diegans came in droves to the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art’s San Diego artists exhibition and a posthumous exhibit of the works of San Diego photojournalist John Hoagland, they kept their distance from the minimalist abstractions of Robert Mangold. However, the bold and harsh figurative evocations of contemporary torture victims by Leon Golub attracted serious interest as did the large wooden sculptures of James Surls.

One of the most exciting developments of 1985, in its potential if not in the realization, was the conversion of a large portion of the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park into gallery space. The gallery, which officials at the center say eventually will become a museum, fills an important artistic and cultural gap in San Diego with its strong exhibitions focusing on Latino culture and border-related issues.

The young Museum of Photographic Arts had its share of hits and misses this year, but remained the bright light in photography. Shows that included Andre Kertesz’s immaculately composed street scenes, John Gutmann’s vital depression-era images, Berenice Abbott’s scaled urban geometry and an exhibit of the unbound creativity of California photographers certainly overshadowed shortcomings in the Hallmark exhibition of celebrity figures and the edge-less “European Edge” show. One of the biggest arts headlines of the year was the San Diego Symphony’s purchase and conversion of the Fox Theatre into its Symphony Hall. The new hall, gussied up and refitted for orchestral acoustics--and amplified for jazz and other popular acts--adds a major new dimension of artistic depth and density to downtown.

Musically, the orchestra performed at unprecedented levels of excellence in 1985 under the guidance of maestro David Atherton. While the “neo-rococo” hall appears to require further acoustical adjustments particularly for orchestra level seating, these seem within easy reach.

Financially, the new hall has not solved the orchestra’s long-term problems. The symphony’s purchase and improvement, for $6.5 million, of a spot of prime downtown real estate now valued between $25 and $30 million, gives the orchestra some leverage on its $1.2 million indebtedness. But practically, the move into the hall, with its increased maintenance costs, plus an expanded season, has boosted the budget into the $8 million neighborhood. But subscriptions, while up from last year, lie well below the 50% mark.

Another financial trouble spot is that the capital campaign fund to finance the renovation is short of its $6.5 million goal by $1.8 million, and at least another $1 million in improvements are needed, according symphony fund-raiser Ken Overstreet. Much of the $4.7 million capital funds received is in pledges spread over several years.

So far the orchestra has not found a super-contributor, a supporter for whom the hall would be named in return for a donation of at least $3 million.

While financial--if not artistic--success continues to elude the orchestra, the potential is there for fiscal stability. Plans for the former Fox Block show it becoming a stylish urban showcase by 1988. Symphony Towers, a multi-use complex including a 33-story office building and 18-story luxury hotel which will rise up around the Symphony Hall. Construction begins in May.


Symphony Towers also will provide the orchestra with direct financial assistance. The symphony will receive a percentage of rentals from the office tower, an amount projected to be more than $250,000 a year, which is tied in perpetuity to the cost of living. Meanwhile, the superb concerts issuing forth from Symphony Hall continue to attract new converts to orchestral music.

Other major arts organizations found 1985 to be a period of substantial growth. The Old Globe Theatre celebrated its 50th anniversary by rebuilding an arson-destroyed outdoor stage and paying off all but $129,000 of a $709,000 debt, carried since an earlier 1978 fire destroyed the original Old Globe Theatre. More than 265,000 tickets were sold, an all-time record, for 12 productions which averaged 95% of capacity.

However, the Globe still incurred long-term indebtedness of $500,000. Insurance and fund-raising efforts provided only $1.6 million of the $2.1 million cost to rebuild the outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre. But theater officials are optimistic. “I’ve no doubt we’ll meet the challenge and succeed as we have in the past,” Thomas Hall, managing director said.

In 1985 Ian Campbell, the San Diego Opera’s general director since 1983, began to reveal his artistic and managerial vision with the first two artistic products of his reign, Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” and Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.” If they are any indication, Campbell tends toward the conservative, and programs the staples. Both operas, however, proved exciting productions--thoughtfully conceived, with an intellectual snap in their interpretations that emphasized theatrical values.

Campbell has allowed space for those who want the new and rarely seen, by providing, in his long-range plan, a series at the Old Globe Theatre where such operas as “The Lighthouse” and a double bill of “The Telephone” and “The Medium” will be performed over the next two years. By staging new works at the intimate Globe, Campbell can save money on sets and not have the expense of the 3,000-seat Civic Theatre.

In the arena of chamber music, for the second year there were three--count ‘em three--groups to claim that appellation. Traditionally San Diego has not been hospitable to home-grown chamber orchestras. The La Jolla Chamber Music Society became primarily a presenter rather than a creator of chamber music because of the lack of support, although that will begin to change in August when the society presents its own San Diego Chamber Music Festival.

Of course in chamber music as in anything, it all comes down to money. The San Diego Chamber Orchestra, under Donald Barra, with a sizable base of support in Rancho Santa Fe, looks more likely to survive over the Pacific Chamber Orchestra under Ethan Dulsky, and the Monteverde Chamber Orchestra under Leonard Ingrande. But, musically, the yearling Pacific Chamber Orchestra has pushed up eyebrows with its impressive ensemble playing. The biggest arts story of 1985 was the bitter and biting controversy revolving around the proposed Ellsworth Kelly sculpture, a $325,000 minimalist spire to have been built on lands owned by the San Diego Unified Port District. The shocker was that once the Port Commission approved a second proposal by Kelly--having rejected the first--the internationally acclaimed painter and sculptor backed out of the deal. Kelly cited the controversy surrounding the project, technical matters related to the fabrication of the sculpture and difficulty with the language of the contract from the Port District.

Unlike a similar public art controversy in New York City involving artist Richard Serra, in San Diego the arts community did not universally support the artist, who was an outsider. Many artists spoke stridently against the Kelly sculpture, and one local artist, Maher Morcos, offered his own unsolicited counter-proposal for a sculpture to the port commissioners. In the ensuing verbal wars, Gerald Hirshberg, Port Commission Arts Advisory Board chairman, along with Kelly, was the butt of often personal criticism for his support of the Kelly sculpture.


The City of San Diego’s Public Arts Advisory Board and the county’s Public Arts Advisory Council, may learn a lesson from the Kelly controversy. Formed to advise their respective legislative bodies on matters pertaining to the arts, the two committees are charged with recommending artists for commissioning and art for governmental acquisition. Based on the Kelly controversy, it appears that a need exists for the public to be actively involved at some stage in the selection process of public art.

In 1985 San Diego suffered several losses in the arts community. The San Diego Public Theatre suspended productions after losing the lease on its theater in the Candy Factory building. Not only had the converted theater space been home for some fascinating theatrical productions, it served as an art gallery and downtown performing arts outlet for some of the new music performers at UC San Diego. The space was also hosted intimate dance, jazz, folk music and traditional dance concerts.

Two talented individuals left the city in 1985. While still maintaining his title of composer in residence to the symphony, Pulitzer Prize winner Bernard Rands moved to Boston. Former San Diego Ballet director John Hart departed to take the artistic reins of Ballet West in Salt Lake City. While Bowery Theatre artistic director Kim McCallum is expected to return from an extended teaching leave at New Mexico State University, the Bowery generally has not fared well this year, with or without McCallum. Most of the shows lacked the consistency of a year ago.

In 1985 the California Ballet maintained its human resources this year, but Three’s Company and Dancers did not have a particularly productive year, losing key male dancers, particularly co-founder Patrick Nollet. With the exception of the imported productions of the San Diego Arts Foundation, 1985 was not a memorable year for the dance in San Diego.

The New Year holds the promise of its own brilliant arts sparks. On Feb. 8 a major exhibition surveying the art of Jennifer Bartlett opens at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art. A Long Beach native, Bartlett is an artist of prodigious talent, at once intellectual and engaging.

The big theater news of 1986 may focus of the San Diego Repertory Theatre when it begins operations of the $7.6-million Lyceum Theatre complex in Horton Plaza. The Rep has grown in 10 years from a struggling theater troupe to an arts organization on the verge of major status. This year its operating budget is pushing $1 million.

The 1985 Rep productions of “Extremities,” about a woman who turns the tables on a would-be rapist, and “Cloud 9,” a play about sexual politics, were typical of its socially aware programming. There should be more of that in store for 1986 with Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls,” Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold . . . and the Boys” and Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love.”

The Old Globe’s production of “Romance Language,” being co-produced with the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles this spring, should bring a risque whiff which Globe audiences are unaccustomed to.

The theater will extend its commitment to developing playwrights in ’86 with a world premiere of Stephen Metcalfe’s “Emily,” commissioned by the Globe, and a New Plays Festival will be held in the fall.

In 1985, Starlight (the San Diego Civic Light Opera), long a home for dated musical theater, tested the waters of contemporary adult musicals with “A Chorus Line,” a popular show despite cancellations for rain. In 1986, Starlight will offer five musicals including “Evita,” under the stars and airliners in Balboa Park.

In 1986, the La Jolla Playhouse will stage another play by Bill Hauptman, who wrote the book of the musical “Big River.” Hauptman’s new play is about the first exploration of the Grand Canyon by Caucasians. The playhouse dominated the 1985 local theater critics awards ceremonies just as “Big River” dominated the Tony Awards. Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff (direction) and UCSD drama department chairman Richard Riddell (lighting design) were among those Tony winners. “Big River” had a major 1984 run in San Diego before it was produced in New York.

Meanwhile a controversy is simmering around the San Diego Art Center’s plans to convert the downtown Balboa Theater into a contemporary art museum. The historic theater, currently a venue for second-run movies, has become a cause for a number of people who have organized resistance to the museum conversion.

Museum supporters, who in 1985 failed to produce a funding package for the conversion, which is estimated to cost $5 million to $8 million, are expected to produce a plan in early 1986, the year construction is scheduled to begin.

Those who would retain the Balboa as a theater, say they can renovate the building for legitimate theatrical use for significantly lower costs. The Centre City Development Corp., San Diego’s redevelopment arm, has promoted the conversion of the theater from the beginning.