Thousand Oaks Builds on Culture for Future : Arts: At a crossroads, city works to mesh creative push for several new museums with the desire to keep its semirural ambience.

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Calling the expansion of cultural centers in Thousand Oaks a sign of self-reliance, residents and city leaders have started to look past the opening of the Civic Arts Plaza and forge ahead with plans for several new museums.

And while the backers of new centers for art, history and science are optimistic about their projects, city planners said balancing the public's desire for more cultural amenities with the wish to keep Thousand Oaks semirural will be tougher than ever.

"I think this is the most challenging time for Thousand Oaks," Councilwoman Jaime Zukowski said.

"This city drew people because it was an escape," she said. "But with the arrival of the civic center, I think there's a creative push which is taking the city in a new direction."

That new direction includes a flurry of activity to find a permanent home for the city art museum and to establish new Native American and children's science museums.

The Conejo Valley Art Museum, which has displayed art in rental galleries for more than a decade, is now actively searching for a permanent location.

Tired of having its works hidden in a corner of the Janss Mall where there is little foot traffic, the museum's volunteer president said the time is right for a move.

"We're going to have the performing arts in Thousand Oaks, so it's only natural that we have the visual arts," said Maria Dessornes, museum president. "That's what makes a city complete."

Dessornes said she envisions a museum with a strong permanent collection and rotating exhibits from around the world. Of course, she added, the museum's shoestring budget will require some creativity.

Already, a private collector has promised to donate his wealth of contemporary art once the museum has a permanent home. And Dessornes said rotating exhibits ranging from Ukrainian art to an exhibit of intricate dolls have proven popular and inexpensive.

"I think we can make something work," she said, "because I think it's something that the city is ready for."

Another group, which grew out of a failed attempt to bring the Southwest Museum from Los Angeles to Thousand Oaks, is arguing that the city is also ready for a native peoples museum.

Led by Councilman Frank Schillo, this effort involves the establishment of a museum that would tell the story of local Native American groups through talks, displays and interactive programs linking Thousand Oaks to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.

Schillo said the group has narrowed its search to two locations--one across from Oakbrook Park and another off Erbes Road--that would be perfect for such a museum.

"I remember when I first moved out here, we had to get everyone in the car and spend a whole day just to go shopping," said Schillo, a 23-year Thousand Oaks resident. "Now we're talking about having a museum less than five minutes away."

Attempts to bring a third museum, this one aimed at sparking children's interest in science through interactive exhibits, is also under way. A group, which has dubbed the new facility the Ventura County Discovery Center, has located a site and is obtaining nonprofit status.

Board members of the proposed science museum said they hope to team up with the city's large scientific community to help them create programs that get young people excited about science.

"There's plenty of focus here on athletics and soccer, but we are lacking in exposing our children to other areas," said Linda Parks, a board member and city planning commissioner.

"All of these museums would be great for the city, as long we are careful when we put them together," Parks said. While residents want these amenities, she said, they also want to ensure that the city protects the semirural atmosphere that drew residents here.

New cultural centers, in addition to the new two-theater Civic Arts Plaza, are sure to bring the added traffic, smog and other problems associated with an urban area.

In the city's recently completed survey of resident attitudes, the desire for an art museum and a children's museum finished 13th and 14th on a list of 27 items needed in the Conejo Valley.

First on the list was more public open space.

"We have to always keep in mind when we're planning the future of the city that foremost on people's minds is the semirural atmosphere," City Planner Larry Marquart said.

The primary means of achieving that during a period of growth, Marquart said, has been to limit the size of buildings, keep the city's hilltops free from development and continue to purchase open space.

"Those things help, but the city is still growing," Marquart said.

Several residents who submitted comments for the city's attitude survey complained that the rural feel has been lost.

And some, Zukowski said, grew so frustrated that they decided to leave the city for such places as Oregon or Idaho, where the lifestyle resembles that of Thousand Oaks' 20 years ago.

"There are those who have given up, but there are more who have not lost hope," Zukowski said. "I still think we can find a way to get these amenities and still maintain the remarkable beauty of this area."

"If we can do that balancing act," she said, "we will be quite a city."

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