ARTISTIC LEAP : The Ojai Center for the Arts as long a top attraction, but the years have taken a toll. A proposed renovation could put it back in the limelight.

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Let's go back a few years--to June 4, 1936.

We're in Ojai, population about 1,500. Another 5,500 people are located throughout the Ojai Valley.

There are five independently run arts organizations in Ojai, all struggling financially and perpetually searching for facilities to call home. Dr. Charles Butler, a non-practicing physician in town, is a member of three of these amateur groups--the community chorus, theater and orchestra.

Butler, a respected financier, has a revolutionary proposal to make to his fellow arts patrons: Why not have all five groups band together and call themselves "The Community Art Center of the Ojai Valley?" Why not have all the groups live under one roof and promote the arts as a whole, rather than individually?

The idea receives a virtual standing ovation.

Singers, actors, musicians, members of the English Folk Dance Society and visual artists all welcome the idea. Within several days they are busy looking for a location to house the new arts collective. They form committees to work on fund raising, writing of bylaws, incorporation and other key ingredients of a nonprofit organization.

On July 5, 1939, ground is broken at 113 S. Montgomery St. More than 500 people have donated labor and money--about $15,000--to the cause. On Nov. 5, 1939, the final touches are completed, and the Ojai Community Art Center is up and running.

CULTURAL NEEDS

Now, let's return to the present. Almost 60 years have passed since Butler presented his idea. Ojai's population has grown to about 8,000. There are approximately 29,000 people in the entire valley.

The facility, now called Ojai Center for the Arts, is still located at 113 S. Montgomery, in a cozy rustic setting adjacent to Libbey Park.

Though a literary group has replaced the chorus, the facility still houses five artistic branches. It is considered the oldest continually operating art center in California, and is unique in that it caters equally to several amateur art forms.

The center still fulfills many cultural needs. There are theatrical productions, dance classes in swing, international, jazz and folk, as well as yoga, acrylic printing, Oriental brush painting, children's acting and exercise. Groups meet for life drawing and poetry workshops. Joan Raymund, the head of the poetry branch, coordinates the annual publication of the literary book "Rivertalk."

Everything is just as it was at the beginning, right? Not exactly.

What was once a central gathering place of a small community is now a somewhat drab, out-of-date space that is just one of many attractions that draws the attention of residents and visitors.

Not only do some residents take the place for granted, or forget about it altogether, but competition for attention and the ever-important arts dollar comes from cities as far away and as culturally abundant as Santa Barbara and Thousand Oaks.

This is compounded by a number of other factors: Ojai is a small community with a large cultural profile--many of its residents are artists and actors whose fame extends well beyond the Ojai Valley. Many of them care as much, or more, about the health and well-being of big-money, big-name places such as the Kennedy Center and the Los Angeles Music Center, than they do about the comparatively small Ojai Art Center, as it is commonly called.

As they head into their sixth decade, the biggest challenge facing the members of the little arts facility is to raise the money needed to bring it up to speed with today's arts world--by expanding it and dusting it off a bit, in a way supporters say it needs to survive and thrive.

"There's been talk for lots of years that the Art Center needs to take a leap. It's been the same for so long," said Teri Mettala, one of two paid center employees. Mettala runs the day-to-day operations, while a volunteer board of trustees handles the rest of the decision making.

"The Art Center is kind of tucked away underneath the trees. We need to stick our head out and show people we're here," she said. "We need to do something to spruce ourselves up a bit." To raise the necessary funds for such sprucing, the folks at the Art Center must appeal to a semi-interested community for help. And renovation does not come cheaply. The estimated xxxcost of a recently proposed project is $50,000 to break ground, $80,000 to $120,000 to complete.

The center is supported by private donations, the annual dues of its 314 members, income from events, a portion of class fees and rental fees charged to outside organizations. It receives no public funding.

Taking all that into consideration, the project may be easier conceived than realized.

"Hell, we've never raised that much money for anything," said artist Bert Collins of the fund-raising committee trio. "But any business needs to move ahead or it moves back. . . . We are really trying to keep up with today's needs, trying to stay a vital part of the community.

"Making the place more attractive is one of our goals and now is the time," she said. "There are incredible artists in town who are famous elsewhere and think the Art Center is beneath them. If we can make the Art Center more attractive, maybe they will join us."

ALWAYS THE DREAM

In other words, if we build it, they will come. And that has always been the dream on one level or another. But the center's popularity has seen its share of ebbs and flows.

In its early days, the facility was virtually the only game in town. Since then neighboring cultural arts venues, local social clubs, community organizations and other distractions have grown in number. Meanwhile, at the Art Center, different decades have seen different branches take the lead in community involvement and financial success.

There was a time when international folk dancing was the town's main attraction. Folk dance used to be taught in the local schools, and from the 1940s through the 1960s, children would regularly join adults at the center for classes and parties.

"Shortly after I moved to Ojai I joined the folk dancing," said renowned potter Beatrice Wood, a resident since 1948, whose work has been displayed at the center on several occasions. "The great thing about the folk dancing is there was the millionaire rancher, the plumber, the artist and the tourist, and we were all interested in having fun."

Folk dance was so popular in Ojai that the first-ever statewide festival of the Folk Dance Federation of California was held there. This Memorial Day weekend will mark the 50th anniversary of that festival and in tribute to the city, it will again be held in Ojai.

These days it's the theater branch that receives the most attention and provides the greatest income for the center. The group's most recent production, "Fiddler on the Roof," was its most well-attended, selling out all 13 performances from Oct. 21 through Dec. 3.

"Our theater branch is a community theater. We're not professional. We want to provide an atmosphere for people of all abilities," said Buzz Cuccia, who earlier this month was named the new theater branch director. "We don't want to tie up the theater branch with professionals. The intent of the Art Center is for community people to volunteer and create art."

TIME FOR FACE LIFT

If that is to keep happening, many agree, the facility needs more than just a cleaning. It needs a major face lift. Many of the powers that be at the center believe now is the time for it. And this time it is not a doctor who may have the revolutionary idea that is needed, but rather an architectural designer.

Marc Whitman, a 37-year-old Ojai resident and city planning commissioner, recently drew up his vision of a new and improved Art Center.

Why not move the front doors out six feet, he suggested? Why not add a porte-cochere (an extension from the roof to the street) over the existing half-circle driveway and planter? Why not construct a skylight roof, a marquee and, perhaps most importantly, a 479-square-foot gift gallery with display window?

The marquee, a fairly low-profile wood version, would make the Art Center visible from well-traveled Ojai Avenue, which crosses Montgomery Street. The gift gallery, an idea that has been kicked around in various forms for about 40 years, would provide further cause for passersby and local artists to check out the facility.

"The Art Center now has a sleepy entry and the front is subdued. People don't notice it, and they don't think of it as a public space," Whitman said. "The plan is to build the glass space and lights to make it more dramatic. We're just trying to give it more pizazz, but keep its traditional flavor."

All of which has elicited rave reviews from those who run the facility.

Whitman, whose mother Nancy is a highly regarded Ojai artist and whose 8-year-old son Nathan is a regular contributor to the center's annual children's art show, said the new look should earn the facility greater respect.

"The entryway would provide a monumental feeling. It would be more of a sanctuary for the Ojai arts," he said. "There's been a lot of talk about all the really good artists going to Santa Barbara. Maybe this can help change that."

Artists may be heading north, but there is, nevertheless, a one year waiting list for exhibit space at the Art Center, where shows change monthly. The proposed gift gallery would provide additional room for displays. And the leaders of the art branch say the gallery would be self-sustaining, with the anticipated sale of artwork and artsy gift items such as jewelry and original, decorative greeting cards.

Despite the monetary considerations, Collins, a longtime board member, is optimistic about the chances of pulling off this expansion. And why not? She has seen the Art Center survive more needy times.

Collins was involved in the revitalization of the art branch in the early 1980s and has seen plenty of money raised in the name of physical improvements.

"When I became a member in 1982, the place was a dump," she said. "There was no carpeting, single-wall construction--if you put a nail in the gallery wall it went outside--the floor was cement, no tile, and it was stained and dirty."

Collins and fellow Ojai artists Gayel Childress and Marta Nelson got the art branch back on its feet, and at the same time launched the popular Studio Artists Tour. In its early years, money raised from the annual event went straight toward building improvements.

By 1986, the tours had raised enough money to refurbish the main gallery, build showcases, replace the unattractive barn-like front doors with panels of beautifully carved wood and etched glass, carpet the fireplace room, tile the lobby floor, and construct the projection booth. Major improvements were made to the roof around the same time.

"Once you build up the place and make it attractive, everything else just comes along," Collins said.

Right now, the center's leaders are in the middle of the brain-storming process, trying to determine how best to raise the necessary funds for the proposed remodeling.

The first tentatively planned fund-raiser would be the "Name-A-Seat" promotion. People would be asked to pay $225 in exchange for having one of the 100 theater seats named in someone's honor. Other special events would follow.

"The gift gallery is very exciting, but it's very frightening too," said Helen Kauppi, president of the Art Center board and member of the fund-raising team. "We're not dealing with our own money. It's the community's money and we want to give them something back in return."

Kauppi is concerned that Ojai Valley residents have been making contributions to causes left and right, and have little cash left to give as it is.

"Everybody's being tapped for fights against the (Doppler radar) tower, Weldon Canyon," she said. "We don't want to over-tap them."

Regardless of how or if the money is raised, Kauppi said she keeps her sights on the bottom line: The Art Center, she said, must be self-sustaining to remain open. There is currently about $17,400 in the center's savings account. Last year the center spent $93,518 and took in $96,557, so things are holding steady financially.

But as critical as funds are to the center's survival, money alone doesn't make a successful cultural facility. To remain viable, a center for the arts needs to adapt to the changing needs of its community.

"We can provide fine arts to the community that they are losing through budget cutbacks in the schools," Cuccia said. "I see us working more hand-in-hand with schools and clubs. I see us again becoming more of a focal point in the community."

Kauppi isn't so sure that the center can still serve as a focal point.

"There's too much competition for time, and nobody has enough of it," she said. "We are not the center of social life anymore, but we can still have art show hangings, theater, dance, poetry. We're a good outlet for amateur expression."

And that, six decades later, is what Dr. Charles Butler had in mind.

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