San Pedro Arts Center Pins Hopes on Director

Times Staff Writer

The struggling Angels Gate Cultural Center has a new executive director--and new hope that it can become financially stable and attract more support from the San Pedro community.

Will Hipps, a 47-year-old painter, sculptor and photographer with experience building art programs and galleries from the ground up, took over at Angels Gate two months ago. He replaces Roberta McFaden Miller, who resigned for personal reasons last September after a stormy four-year tenure.

‘One Day at a Time’

In an interview last week, Hipps said he is taking his new job “one day at a time, with my eye on the future.”


“What gives me confidence is that I’ve gone in where there was a lot less support from the community and a lot less facilities.”

Yet he also noted that “in a way, it’s a little bit more difficult here. I’m not exactly starting from scratch. There is a history I have to deal with.”

That history has been troubled, particularly during the past 18 months, when the arts organization faced threats of lawsuits from members, wiring problems that resulted in the closing of its theater, and debts of as much as $15,000.

In addition, some charged that Miller, who was praised for being hard-working and energetic, was also too dogmatic and drove away talented artists. Even George Beck, president of the center’s board of directors and a constant supporter of Miller, conceded last week that her leaving may have done the center good.


“I think it was time,” Beck said. “She was there for four years and she gave a lot and she burned herself out, and I think she realizes that, too.”

Miller herself said when she left that the center was on a sound footing and ready for a change of leadership.

Center Has Reduced Debt

Beck said that by not having to pay the salary of an executive director for four months the center has reduced its debt to about $5,000. And, he said, “we told him (Hipps) that the No. 1 priority is to get our income to match our expenses.”

Beck said Hipps, who was chosen from a field of 30 applicants, “seems to be very much what we needed. . . . We needed somebody that had a professional background in the management of art and that had a good background in the, shall I say, operational end of art.”

For all this, Beck acknowledged, the new director is not being paid much--just $400 a week, with the possibility of a raise if he can increase the center’s income. Miller made about $600 a week.

Although Hipps does not have a formal contract with the center, he said he views his commitment as long term, possibly 15 to 20 years.

The nonprofit cultural center, founded in 1981, holds art classes and provides studio space to artists in a complex of former military barracks at Angels Gate Park. The barracks are owned by the city, which is about to approve a new three-year lease with the center.


Initially, the center’s founders proposed demolishing the old barracks and building a new center with private money. But no serious fund raising was ever done.

Now, however, that effort must begin in earnest. A new master plan for Angels Gate Park, scheduled to be implemented in three years, calls for moving the cultural center to a three-acre site elsewhere in the park. The center must come up with money to build a new complex there or have the barracks moved to the new site.

Beck said the board is looking to Hipps to “take a leading part” in efforts to raise money for a building fund, and would also like him to help the center attract new students and artists.

Hipps’ varied background has taken him across the country, from North Carolina to Georgia, Massachusetts, Texas, New York and, most recently, San Francisco and Los Angeles, where he now lives in San Pedro, a short walk from Angels Gate.

Started a Cooperative

In Dallas, he created the visual arts program at the University of Texas and founded a cooperative in which he and other artists bought a 26,000-square-foot warehouse and converted it into 14 studios and a gallery.

In Provincetown, Mass., he served as director of visual arts at the Fine Arts Work Center, which provides fellowships for 10 artists and writers each year. Over the long term, Hipps said, he would like to see a similar program at Angels Gate.

Over the short term, he said he intends to concentrate on improving the center’s class schedule and its buildings. That pleases Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks officials, who had run-ins with Miller when substandard electrical wiring was discovered in one of the cultural center buildings.


“I’m extremely happy with the guy,” said Robert Brown, the department’s Angels Gate supervisor. “Before, when I talked about codes and enforcement it would fall on deaf ears.”

Even March Beagle, a center member who has been its staunchest critic, was optimistic about Hipps and said she has noticed changes since his arrival. “The whole atmosphere is much more constructive and open,” she said.