Commentary : OK, What Have We Learned Here? : The complex 1993 Los Angeles Festival provided lessons for the future of the arts in the city . . . and for America as a whole

<i> Jan Breslauer is a frequent contributor to Calendar. </i>

They don’t make ‘em like they used to. That we know for sure from the recently concluded 1993 Los Angeles Festival. Not only was it a marathon arts smorgasbord like no other in recent memory, it also articulated the most urgent issues of cultural debate in a city (and country) in flux.

First and foremost, the 1993 festival deserves hearty congratulations--and not only for the incredible dumb luck of having already planned an event with a partial Middle Eastern focus right when the historic agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization fell from the sky.

The festival did what it set out to do. It got different people to come out to new neighborhoods and mix. It involved people (and communities) who hadn’t been invited to take part in an arts festival before. Chalk up one for art as social work.

The festival also showed Angelenos kinds of art they probably hadn’t seen, introducing them to many non-European and non-Western traditional forms. Chalk up one for art as anthropology, a.k.a. cultural tourism.


Still, there were times when this ambitious festival came up short. Some of the series and events were ill conceived or poorly produced, and some were poorly attended. And though there were striking instances in which the festival achieved its integrationist goals, there were also many times when it reinforced the very separatism it professed to be dispelling.

There are lessons here not just about the future of the Los Angeles Festival, though, but for the future of the arts in America.

The festival’s successes, as well as its shortcomings, show that we must move beyond “multiculturalism” as we’ve known it. That doesn’t mean abandon the imperatives of diversity. On the contrary, it’s time for multiculturalism to engage in a bit of self-criticism, to evolve in order to survive.

“What we’re doing is a strange marriage of social work and art.”


--Ernie Lafky, regarding his Memory Project “Friendly Fire,” at a festival artists’ forum, Sept. 15

The mauve-and-pink Deco theater is packed with an excited crowd of about 1,000--mostly African-Americans, many whites, few others--for “We’ve Come This Far by Faith,” a tribute to West Coast gospel music that is the main event at the Leimert Park opening night of the 1993 Los Angeles Festival.

Half a block away at the much smaller Theater 2, though, it’s a different scene. “Ciudad Adentro/City Within” is a mixed bill with dancer Hae Kyung Lee, bilingual poetry by Manuel Luna and Gloria Alvarez and the black Caribbean-American ensemble Chatuye. There are only about 50 people in the house to begin with. Once Luna and Alvarez are done, most of the Latinos leave.

There wasn’t only one 1993 Los Angeles Festival. There were many--sometimes within spitting distance of one another. Which is why no two festival-goers saw the same event.

This reporter, for example, sampled more than 35 events during the 31-day run--both watching full programs and event-hopping--in an attempt to see as much of a representative cross section of the festival as possible.

Although the festival had an ostensible focus on African, Middle Eastern and African-American cultures, with a theme of “Home, Place and Memory,” a lot of it had nothing to do with either the focus or the theme. The scope was impressive, especially for an event that has had much less money than its predecessors.

The 1993 festival started with a $5.2-million budget, which in the spring was slashed to $4 million because of fund-raising shortfalls. With the $1.2 million went the festival’s plans to bring in many acts from outside Los Angeles.

Events took place at 49 venues--that’s if you count the already-scheduled shows, exhibits and annual events such as the Sunset Junction Street Fair and the African Marketplace that the festival claimed as its own, even though they would have been going on anyway.


The sites ranged from such churches as Pasadena’s All Saints to North Hollywood’s St. Anne Melkite, to such familiar haunts as the Getty Museum, UCLA and USC, with fewer events away from the city center at places like Pierce College in Woodland Hills and Armando’s restaurant in Highland Park.

The siting coup was Leimert Park, the Crenshaw neighborhood that was a major locus of festival activities. Not only were the three theaters there hospitable, but the ploy also got non-African-Americans to a comfortably middle-class part of town where they wouldn’t normally go.

The festival was generally, although not universally, well attended. Many of the Leimert events, some of Crossing L.A., the Getty concerts and the Sacred Landmarks series were successful beyond expectation, with capacity crowds, some of which were demographically diverse and some of which weren’t.

There were also events and series that didn’t draw. Readings and panels were sometimes sparsely attended, and many films went largely unnoticed. (There were, for example, 10 people in the 318-seat Museum of Tolerance auditorium to see Camille Billops and James Hatch’s “Finding Christa” and other films. Likewise, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 600-seat Bing Theater had only 28 in the house for Haroutiun Katchatrian’s “Winds of Emptiness.”)

The overall success, of course, isn’t just in the numbers.

“We must follow the rule: Better fewer, but better.”

--Lenin, March, 1923

Paul Tifford Jr. stands onstage in the Vision Complex’s Theater 2, twirling Hula-Hoops on his arms and legs. He talks about how at age 7 he fell in love with the revolving rings, recounts his exploits on the competitive Hula-Hoop circuit and politely invites questions from the audience.


The bill continues with the Los Angeles Poverty Department’s “Call Home,” yet another bit of group therapy masquerading as a play from this conceptually appealing yet theatrically deadly ensemble of homeless and others.

The evening is Crossing L.A.'s “Everybody for Something” and it is definitely not the high point of this watershed festival. At its worst, the festival approached a bad night on “The Ed Sullivan Show”: As Tifford twirled, the ghost of Topo Gigio hovered in the wings.

This was a festival that put a lot of stock in democracy, curatorial and otherwise. Maybe too much. But that’s because it felt a need to define itself against what PC partisans see as the sins of festivals past.

The Los Angeles Festival grew out of the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. The 10-week, $11-million 1984 event featured Pina Bausch, Sankaijuku, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Le Theatre du Soleil, Piccolo Teatro di Milano and much more.

And similarly, the 3 1/2-week, $5.9-million 1987 festival showcased such groups as Cirque du Soleil, the Royal Dramatic Theater and Ingmar Bergman’s “Miss Julie” and Peter Brook’s nine-hour “Mahabarata.” Former CalArts President Robert Fitzpatrick was at the helm for these two successful and profitable festivals.

Yet the 1984 and 1987 festivals, with their blue-chip (mostly, but not entirely) European and Western-influenced dance, theater and music, were criticized for failing to reach out to non-traditional audiences, by virtue of their curatorial focus and high ticket prices.

Consequently, in 1990 and 1993, about 70% of the events were free and many took place at sites that don’t usually host such events. These facts alone are substantial achievements. The biggest change of all, though, was the shift from Fitzpatrick to acclaimed stage director Peter Sellars, who changed the festival’s focus from European-based experimentalists to a non-Eurocentric remembrance of things past, although his own theater and opera work is in the Euro-avant-garde tradition. Sellars’ first act, after his appointment in 1987, was to change the festival from a biennial to a triennial event.

The 17-day, $5.6-million 1990 festival focused on Pacific culture and featured many dance-based works from such places as Japan, Thailand and Latin America, as well as such non-Pacific works as Sellars & John Adams’ “Nixon in China” and New York’s Wooster Group. A concurrent Open Festival included hundreds of self-producing artists.

But the 1993 festival was even less traditional than 1990. At the same time the imports were curtailed, the curatorial power was also decentralized. Sellars, who has said that he dislikes “autocratic” arts administration, claims to have turned his power over to 20 people (although considerably fewer than that appear to have the lion’s share of it).

The results were mixed, with problems stemming from a tendency to hide hit-and-miss curating behind the banners of democracy and multiculturalism.

In many cases, the fare went over well--especially when both the caliber of the artists and the production values were high. Among the exemplary were many programs in the Sacred Landmarks and the Getty Concerts. Yet some mixed bills in the Crossing L.A. series--exhibitions, performances and video programs curated by guest L.A. artists, selected from a pool of 500 submissions--didn’t do as well.

The Memory Projects were also problematic. Intended to use the work of a variety of commissioned artists to give voice to “collective memories” of five L.A. “neighborhoods,” these ventures didn’t live up to expectations--one wasn’t completed in time for the festival and the rest fell short artistically.

The Women’s Voices series sometimes clicked, but it also had serious flaws. The Getty reading by Pulitzer winner Gwendolyn Brooks brought out an appreciative house. Similarly, the bookstore reading by Israeli poet Shirley Kaufman and Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye took on an unanticipated topical sheen, as it was given just days before the peace treaty signing. Yet there were many more entries that were ill-conceived.

While the Women’s Voices roster was promising, the events didn’t always show off the talents to their best advantage. The panels, readings and dialogues had the stale whiff of academia: They were more suited to a conference than an arts festival.

A women filmmakers’ panel in a one-third-full Melnitz Theater at UCLA, for example, gathered an impressive group of artists for an event that was shoddily orchestrated and surprisingly boring. Similarly, a reading by Latina authors in an auxiliary room at a Pasadena church cried out for a shaping hand.

Playwrights suffered the most in this series. One good production of a Ntozake Shange or Adrienne Kennedy play, for example, would have moved more hearts and minds--not to mention filled more seats--than a “dialogue and exchange” between Shange, Kennedy and Suzan-Lori Parks, moderated by Akilah Nayo Oliver. Granted, productions are expensive. But co-productions with L.A. theaters--an option that has worked in other festivals--would have been a better use of resources. (Even staged readings would have packed more punch than what we got.)

Theater itself didn’t fare that much better, though. Only two of the five major theater pieces--Corey Fisher’s “Sometimes We Need a Story More Than Food” and Reza Abdoh’s “Quotations From a Ruined City"--were of the caliber you would expect of a major festival. And dance, an already much-maligned form in L.A., was mostly relegated to mixed bills.

“Art is gender-free, race-free, creed-free.” --Radha Baharadwaj, women filmmakers’ panel, Aug. 24

Pierce College sits high on a hill overlooking the quiet, green northwest Valley panorama of Hal Bernson’s white-on-white City Council district. The half-full 375-seat house is comfortably settled when an official comes out to welcome the audience to the first L.A. Festival performance of A Traveling Jewish Theater. “Shalom aleichem,” he says to the mostly middle-aged and older people in attendance, fewer than 10 of whom are non-white. Like a shot, they give back the traditional Jewish responsive greeting: “Aleichem shalom.”

Three weeks later, comic performer George Haddad briefly takes the stage at UCLA during Cornerstone Theatre’s Arab-American oriented “Ghurba.” Most of the audience chuckles appreciatively at his routine, none of which is in English.

There were many such gatherings of the clan during the festival. And there were also times when people did mix--mostly when the bills themselves were mixed--although audiences didn’t always stick around for each other’s art. But for a festival that made a lot of chest-thumping fuss about bringing people together, the effect too often was the same insularity that it set out to diffuse.

There were two kinds of events that broke this wall: mixed bills where the quality of the work and the event were so compelling that they overrode a tendency to balkanize, and single-act bills where the artists were not only virtuosic, but also working in a readily accessible genre.

But it doesn’t necessarily take a group as well known as, say, Sweet Honey in the Rock, to bring people together. “At the Intersection of Possibility,” for example, was an electric Crossing L.A. evening curated by writer-performer Luis Alfaro. It amassed and held a diverse crowd for a bill that included Alfaro, Ming-Yuen Ma, G. Colette Jackson, Betty Gonzales Nash and das bang!manifesto. The evening was curated not on the basis of the artists’ identities, but because of affinities between the works. And therein lies the lesson.

One problem with status-quo multiculturalism is that it has shifted curatorial focus away from the nature of the art to the identity of the artist--and a strictly race-defined identity at that. Artists are placed on a bill or in an exhibit not because of the kind of art they make, but because of who their ancestors were. This not only narrows artists and audiences, but it encourages a harmful quota-ism as well. And that’s a stage of development we should move beyond.

Another problem with this festival’s style of multiculturalism is that it favors traditional art forms. Sure, Djivan Gasparyan playing the Armenian duduk at the Getty is beautiful. But 18th-Century songs about kings banishing court musicians don’t necessarily have a lot to say to today’s L.A. (or even today’s Armenia).

For every experimental group like the Hittite Empire, there were many more bills filled with African drumming and dancing. While there is nothing wrong with offering both traditional and contemporary forms, there should have been more balance. The festival aimed to bring people together, and contemporary works tend to speak more to that goal, or at least point out the obstacles in the way.

In an interview with The Times before the opening of the festival, Sellars said he wanted the event to be “less anecdotal and more forward-looking. . . . It’s about . . . creating the next step in this city’s journey.” Accordingly, it’s hard to see why what is so often called ethnomusicology should have been so large a part of the 1993 festival.

One’s culture, after all, means more than just race. And art is meant to do more than just reinforce ethnic identity. That can be an important entry-level function, but it is only when the art is really great--as we saw with the work of a Sweet Honey in the Rock, a Gwendolyn Brooks or a Reza Abdoh--that the ethnicity isn’t what matters most, and the experience transcends the sociological function.

While the debate surrounding multiculturalism has often made it seem as if we have to choose between diversity and excellence, the truth is we can have both. Proving this was the 1993 Los Angeles Festival’s greatest achievement. Now all festival organizers have to do is keep that in mind as we look toward 1996.