New Doors Opening for Alternative Arts : Stage: Highways, High Performance stay on the cutting edge with the 18th Street Arts Complex.


Now may not be boom time for the alternative arts, but that's not stopping a group of Santa Monica-based artists and arts organizations whose names are synonymous with the cutting edge.

In a move that seems to fly in the face of ongoing attacks from the right and a sour economy, the enclave that houses Highways Performance Space and High Performance magazine has just announced a major administrative reconfiguration and facilities expansion, which will open this weekend. High Performance has joined with Highways to form an umbrella organization, known as the 18th Street Arts Complex.

"We got the will to do this from the fact that Highways and High Performance are doing better than ever," says Linda Frye Burnham, the new complex's artistic programs director as well as the co-artistic director (with performance artist Tim Miller) of Highways.

Yet the move isn't quite as trend-bucking as it seems, because the plans for it have been in the works for three years. "We were looking at this before things got tight," says Steven Durland, complex executive director, who also edits High Performance.

The remodeled building, a former 13,000-square-foot warehouse redesigned by architects Spiess Wheeler Partners, will house two arts organizations--Continuum Dance Studio and Tearsheets Performance Studio--a rental rehearsal studio, a visual art gallery curated by Highways, a visiting artists' studio, a rental tool shop, an installation space run by photographer Karen Atkinson and an array of studios, some of which will double as residences for artists.

The expansion will be celebrated with an open house and Pico Neighborhood Arts Festival on Sunday at the complex, which is on 18th Street just off Olympic. The all-day festivities will feature free performances by a variety of artists on two stages, including members of Latins Anonymous, Cornerstone Theater Company, African-American fraternity and sorority step teams and many others. Free artist-led tours and numerous in-studio activities will also be available.

The expansion makes the Westside complex unique among the country's alternative arts facilities, the majority of which operate alone or with only one or two other small organizations in proximity.

"When we looked for models, there wasn't anything like this," says Durland. "Bringing a bunch of organizations together instead of creating a hierarchy and hiring people to run that is unique."

"There are some models in the U.S. where an organization has master-leased and is renting out space to support programs," says Burnham. "But we're doing the opposite, actually subsidizing the tenants. The programs are supporting the tenants." Burnham declined to disclose specific rental rates, but claimed they are between one-third and one-half below market rates.

In addition to new tenants such as Continuum Studio, Tearsheets Productions, Side Street Workshop and others, current complex resident organizations include Community Arts Resources, Cornerstone Theater, Electronic Cafe International, the Empowerment Project, the Hittite Empire, the National Women's Theater Festival and the Woman's Building. All of these organizations were founded and are still run by artists.

These unprecedented moves come soon to a venue that has quickly become Los Angeles' chief presenter of avant-garde work. "We have an opportunity to forge ahead," says Burnham. "People have some confidence in us."

"High Performance has been around for a long time with an established infrastructure," Durland says of the 14-year-old magazine. "Highways is the opposite. So by consolidating, we were able to diversify costs. Highways is the nonprofit equivalent of a subsidiary under the Complex."

High Performance magazine, which Burnham founded, has long been looking for ways to diversify its activities, partly to spread overhead costs. However, funders repeatedly dismissed requests for support, telling the magazine, as Durland recalls, "that's not what you do."

"When you're out trying to raise money, you can only project so much credibility and ability to handle programs when you're one small organization," Durland says. "This gives us more clout."

(In a separate move, High Performance has also recently established a relationship with CalArts. The complex now publishes High Performance "in association with CalArts," although the school contributes no funds and Durland has not sacrificed editorial control. "It's more of an ideological relationship, where CalArts feels more comfortable coming to me with ideas and I have more access to them," Durland says.)

The formation of the complex also allows the group to master-lease the facilities from their owner, an anonymous patron who paid for the renovations. "The owner is committed to these ideas, but is an absentee landlord," Durland says. "This way, it's more likely that things are going to get accomplished."

Ironically, the closest precedent for this consolidation comes from the Music Center, the cultural Acropolis that is yin to the complex's yang. "The scale is radically different, but the structure is closer than what we found in any alternative organizations," Durland says. "There are separate fund-raising entities. The word is consolidate, not merge ."

Ultimately, though, the complex leaders have their sights set on even more. "Our long-term goal would be to try and purchase the property," Durland says, noting that the complex intends to launch a feasibility study before the end of the year.

"We're trying to build an institution," Burnham says. "This (new organizational arrangement) gives us a team. The previous model was of artists starting one- and two-person organizations. It's not that we want to get big, but we know and trust the people we're working with."

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