Laura Zucker's new office is a comfortable room at the end of the Momentum Gallery's exhibition area in Ventura. But the way Zucker sees it, it's "in the trenches," and that's its great advantage.
Zucker, a free-lance arts consultant for the last two years, started work two weeks ago as director of the Ventura Arts Council, the main arts advocacy group in Ventura County.
"When you're consulting, you're always on the outside," said Zucker in a recent interview. "You don't feel the same stake in something. And I felt this was a really unique and exciting organization."
Her coming-out party was last Saturday, when the gallery held an opening reception for "Marks," an exhibit of black-and-white works by Clay Hagewood, Carolyn Hubbs, Robert Lerner, Lynn Morley, Sharyn Rutherford and Jane McKinney. Zucker had already huddled with her new board members and the local Chamber of Commerce. But this was her chance to press flesh with the leaders of the county's fledgling arts community.
"We had a good time," reported Zucker. "And we even sold some pieces."
The Ventura Arts Council, a private, nonprofit organization, has run the Momentum Gallery on Palm Street in Ventura since 1987. The group, with an annual budget of about $180,000, offers technical advice to visual and performing artists and distributes grants for the city of Ventura.
Under its previous director, Maureen Davidson, the arts council built a reputation as a haven for artists of various disciplines, drawing attention for its adventuresome, and sometimes controversial, gallery exhibits.
But Davidson resigned in June to take a job out of state. In leaving, she said the arts council position was getting more administrative and less creative. She also warned that the agency's independence could be threatened by a growing "paternal" attitude among city officials, who supply the lion's share of the organization's funding. City officials discounted those suggestions.
Zucker, a veteran of many arts controversies in Los Angeles County, was reluctant to wade into those issues during her first weeks on the job. She was, however, happy to disclose how she got here.
Zucker, 40, grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., and has spent most of her adult life at work in the arts. After majoring in English at Barnard College, she enrolled for graduate school at the Yale School of Drama.
"I was an actress for about two minutes," she recalled. "I was in the same class with Meryl Streep. But I didn't know I was in a class with the premier actress of my generation. I just thought, 'Here I am, and in one class, there's already somebody this much better than me.' "
Zucker turned to directing, and then to producing. Eventually, she and her husband, actor Allan Miller, settled in the San Fernando Valley and founded the Back Alley Theatre. Over more than a decade, the organization produced new works, staged original children's programming, toured the state and built an annual budget that Zucker said reached $350,000.
But in 1989, in need of a larger performance facility and reluctant to immerse themselves in the large-scale fund-raising effort it would require, the Back Alley's leaders dissolved the organization.
"It may be the only theater in the history of the world to close in the black," Zucker said.
Since then, she has worked as a private consultant, evaluated organizations for the California Arts Council and been active as a board member for Arts Inc., a multidisciplinary resource organization that works with Los Angeles-area arts groups. It was on Arts Inc. business that she first visited the Ventura Arts Council early this year.
She came back early this summer as a juror to help decide how the arts council would distribute its $10,000 in city grants.
"I didn't know what to expect," Zucker said. "I was knocked out by the quality of the proposals."
When she heard that Davidson would soon be leaving the Ventura job, "the bells went off," Zucker said.
"She had a very extensive background in arts management," said arts council board member Sally Weber, who served on the search committee that chose Zucker. "The board felt that kind of experience would be really appreciated, because we have a lot of new board members, myself included."
One of Zucker's first acts in the new job was to finalize her predecessor's plans for an exhibit of art by Juan Alonso, a Cuban artist who now lives in Seattle. The show will open Oct. 12.
Beyond that show, however, the gallery walls are uncommitted. The arts council may use guest curators, Zucker said, or may rely on the visual arts expertise of her recently hired assistant, Gloria Carbajal.
But that decision, like many others, is likely to wait at least a little while. Until she communes with her board and sounds out the community, Zucker said, "it would be very foolish of me to have any kind of mission or agenda."
UP CLOSE LAURA ZUCKER
Current vocation: Director, Ventura Arts Council
Previous vocation: Producing director and co-founder of the Back Alley Theatre in Los Angeles.
Previous, previous vocation: "I was an actress for about two minutes." Then she found herself in a class with Meryl Streep at Yale.
Ambition: To act as a bridge between business and arts groups, and boost the growth of Ventura County's fledgling arts community.