COMMENTARY : 1987 Was Year of Change for Arts in S.D.

San Diego County Arts Writer

It was quite a year for the San Diego arts scene.

Evidence of a new maturity surfaced in 1987--but only in certain quarters. Local theater went to town--to New York City to be exact--while local dance companies fell into the shadow of out-of-town troupes.

As the symphony began what its new management says will be a long march to regain lost community support, key contemporary art galleries folded, dropping like a string of dominoes.

Besides the absence of strong support from museums, critically acclaimed local artists suddenly found there were no commercial showcases in the city willing to show their work. Then as the year drew to a close, a couple of new galleries braved the killing odds against survival to open as beacons for emerging artists.

It was the year that cultural exchange with Tijuana got off the ground, and the City of San Diego considered revamping the way it supports the arts.

The big surprise and the top arts story was the San Diego Symphony. After a long slump--a canceled season in '86-'87--the city's major music machine hit the comeback trail, eliminating its operating debt and signing a two-year pact to employ 81 players.

Other selected highlights of the year:

A slew of theater productions were batted out of the ballpark all the way to New York City in 1987. The Old Globe Theatre's "Into the Woods" and "Emily," the Potpourri Theatre's "Fortune and Men's Eyes," the San Diego Rep's "Holy Ghosts" and the La Jolla Playhouse's "A Walk in the Woods" either have opened or are scheduled to open in New York.

Also, Maureen Gaffney and Kathy Najimy, a couple of San Diego actresses, returned home from the Big Apple as conquering heroines. Their "Kathy and Mo Show," a wickedly funny evening of character sketches, has played to full houses in Gotham and Baltimore. Hatched here two years ago, the show demonstrated that with the right combination of talent and ambition, local performers can achieve success far beyond the city limits.

One oddity on the local theater scene was the contretemps at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre, which opened a second theater, named it for a local patron, then fell out with the patron and, at his request, stripped his name from the playhouse. The new theater continues, nameless, in operation. A new appellation has been promised.

The San Diego Opera continued a, so far, successful financial and artistic retrenchment. Returning to the basics, the opera ventured its first "Der Fliegende Hollaender" and two traditional productions of "Rigoletto" and "L'Elisir d' Amore." The opera's prudent fiscal management has put operations in the black.

In dance, the modern master Merce Cunningham bewitched, bothered and bewildered in his company's performances at the Spreckels Theatre. The San Francisco Ballet brought to town a brilliant "Nutcracker."

The San Diego Museum of Art brought in the dazzling "Modern German Masterpieces" exhibit, courtesy of the St. Louis Art Museum, and "Black Sun: The Eyes of Four," a powerful show featuring four post-war Japanese photographers, underwritten in part by Fujitsu Systems of America Inc.

The La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art's current retrospective of Chicago artist Roger Brown, curated by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, beguiles in its combination of beauty and danger.

One noteworthy art project conceived locally was the Museum of Photographic Arts' "William Klein: An American in Paris," an engaging, major retrospective of Klein's vivid urban street scenes. Unfortunately for the rest of the country, the show did not travel.

Another interesting, locally developed exhibit was the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art's setting of 36 gregarious works by New York artist Vito Acconci. This is the same Acconci who, like Ellsworth Kelly before him, has been caught in the devil's triangle of the San Diego Unified Port District. Acconci's proposal for a public work near Spanish Landing, though approved by the commission's art advisory board, is being reconceived by the artist at the request of the commissioners.

Few really top-quality art and dance events originated here in 1987, and some disturbing trends were manifested.

Five cutting-edge art galleries either closed or radically shifted their focus to less exciting art. The reason given: lagging sales. Despite the announced closings of the Patty Aande, Mark Quint, Natalie Bush and Anuska galleries, and the reorientation of the Gwydion Gallery, others popped up. The Dietrich Jenny Gallery opened in the old Quint Gallery space, and Nivada Gallery opened in Hillcrest.

Several artists ruefully noted that it doesn't help matters that the two local museums don't present a major annual show of local artists. The La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art did present artists from the local Border Art Workshop in its satellite downtown gallery. And the San Diego Museum of Art did its annual Artists Guild exhibit that perversely surveys the lower, rather than the upper, end of the art talent in San Diego.

In 1987, local dance companies began taking a decided back seat to an increasing influx of visiting troupes. The scariest part, say the locals, is not the direct competition from the imported talent, but the competition for dollars from local funding sources. The companies that present such top acts as the Joffrey Ballet, the Nikolais Dance Theatre, Twyla Tharp and Pilobolus are appealing to the same arts patrons and foundations for contributions as the local California Ballet and Three's Company.

There is a tendency in San Diego to focus on organizations rather than artists--singers, musicians, actors, dancers, painters and sculptures. It is noteworthy that those companies and businesses that work almost exclusively with local artists--the symphony, dance troupes such as Three's Company and the California Ballet, Lamb's Players and those art galleries that closed--have the toughest time surviving.

On the other hand, museums, the opera and most theaters, which do not have to pay an annual wage to local artists, import much of their talent.

When the symphony board of directors considered options to put an orchestra back on stage, one alternative was to import musicians from a nearby city, as a few cities have done. To the board's credit, it chose the toughest route in terms of fund raising--it hired players on a full-time basis, thus voting with their pocketbooks and underscoring the importance of having artists working and living in this city.

Another group that has stood strongly behind local musicians is the La Jolla Chamber Music Society, which regularly presents promising young local musicians in recital. Similarly, the society has included local musicians in its annual Summerfest chamber series.

Some promising events:

The City of San Diego, the Mexican Consul-General, the Centro Cultural de la Raza, the Centro Cultural Tijuana and the Casa de la Cultura of Tijuana began a series of cultural exchanges involving local arts institutions and artists. Some of those involved say the exchanges have the potential to increase the understanding of the cultural gap that separates the cities.

The City of San Diego appears close to adopting a resolution creating a powerful arts and cultural commission. A task force has recommended that a commission take over recommendations for distributing city funds to arts groups and artists. Virtually all artists and arts managers agree that the current method is highly inefficient and long overdue for an overhaul.

What is unknown is how the creation of a new commission would affect COMBO, the private arts funding agency. For about 15 years, COMBO has distributed city funds to arts groups. As envisioned, the new commission would supersede some of COMBO's duties. COMBO officials say they plan to concentrate on raising more funds from private sources.

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