Into the Mix : Some Arts Groups Embrace Vietnamese; Others Barely Recognize Them

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the county's art establishment, reaching out to Vietnamese Americans is not as simple as just mailing slick season ticket brochures to Little Saigon.

Building a relationship with the growing and increasingly influential community is a sometimes tentative process of mutual exploration. For some mainstream arts groups, that process has yet to germinate; for others, especially the Pacific Symphony, a relationship is starting to bloom.

The issues of recognizing the Vietnamese Americans and of integrating them into the mainstream take on a special focus this year: 1995 is the 20th anniversary of the first Vietnam War refugees' arrival in Orange County--which now includes more Vietnamese than any place outside of Vietnam itself.

Many 20-year observances are planned, and many of them involve the arts, a reflection of vibrant activity within Little Saigon. Traditional music ensembles exist alongside groups that pump out Vietnamese rock and rap. There is Vietnamese-language radio and television. Three of the five largest Vietnamese publishing companies in the United States are based in Orange County, and paintings by local Vietnamese Americans tour in prominent exhibitions.

But all of this exists in what is almost a parallel world to the rest of Orange County, largely unknown to those who aren't Vietnamese.

Still, the Pacific Symphony will participate in the local centerpiece of Project 20, the most extensive of the anniversary observances: A symphonic suite called "1975," composed by Khoa Le who now lives in Orange, will premiere in Costa Mesa on June 3.

And next month, the orchestra will present a commemorative work of its own. An untitled work by Elliot Goldenthal, commissioned to reflect on the human experience of the Vietnam War, is to premiere April 26--three days shy of 20 years after Saigon fell to the Communists. As part of his research for the piece, Goldenthal held a workshop that brought orchestra members together with local Vietnamese American musicians. It was unprecedented.

The commission is a risk for the orchestra. If handled insensitively, the hourlong symphonic/chorale work--the most substantial music commission in Orange County history--"could wind up offending everyone" from veterans to refugees, notes Louis G. Spisto, the orchestra's executive director.

So why do it? "We feel a responsibility to embrace as many communities within Orange County as possible," Spisto explained during a press conference at which Project 20 was announced.

Outreach, as it is called in the nonprofit arts community, is critical to an organization's survival, be it an orchestra, a museum, a dance troupe or a theater company. For one thing, these organizations are struggling perhaps as never before to balance their budgets in an era of diminishing private and public support. From a financial standpoint alone, unless they offer programming that appeals to an increasingly diverse population, they won't sell tickets. And such public funding that survives is contingent on multicultural programming that reflects the ethnic mix of taxpayers generating the money for grants.

Meanwhile, California's schools represent a broader ethnic array than any in the nation. If arts groups don't expose all young people to the arts, they risk losing future audiences.

Every arts institution in the county has at least one outreach program targeting elementary through high schools. The Laguna Art Museum's programs have featured a Vietnamese War-related assemblage by Chi Le of Westminster that has been shown at the museum and acquired for its permanent collection. However, the Laguna has focused its major outreach efforts on Latinos, who make up the county's second largest population group (after whites). A large exhibit of prints by Chicano artists opened last week.

The Newport Harbor Art Museum in Newport Beach invited two local Vietnamese poets to read their work last year in conjunction with "Youth in Asia," an exhibit by American Terry Allen that dealt with the Vietnam War. But the museum has done little beyond that.

"It's not a pressing agenda," not as important as organizing retrospectives of established artists, says its chief curator, Bruce Guenther.

On the other hand, the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana plans to stage an exhibit of local Vietnamese art. No date has been set, but a grant proposal has been sent to a "major arts funding organization," and a curator is being sought, according to museum director Peter C. Keller.

Attention to Pacific Rim culture is part of the Bowers mandate and helps make it unique in the county, says Keller, so "it would be remiss of us not to present such an exhibit, especially because the Vietnamese are an important community in Orange County."

Few performing arts group have come up with such large-scale projects as the Pacific's symphony commission, though all the major groups at least have taken steps toward showcasing Vietnamese culture.

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Last year, South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa cast a young Vietnamese actor in a play that toured elementary schools in the area. The play, based on a Southeast Asian folk tale, incorporated some Vietnamese language dialogue. SCR will offer free acting classes and theater games at a local Vietnamese community center this spring.

But, like the Laguna museum, SCR has targeted most of its outreach efforts on Latinos. Through such efforts, including a Hispanic Playwrights Program, the theater has commissioned about 10 plays. Instead of "spreading ourselves too thin, we've dealt with (ethnic diversity) one step at a time," says spokesman Cristofer Gross.

The Irvine Barclay Theatre's Cheng Hall has been used for annual Tet festival performances produced by UC Irvine's Vietnamese Student Assn., and the Orange County Philharmonic Society is "exploring the possibility" of presenting the Vietnamese National Symphony Orchestra, according to executive director Dean Corey.

The Orange County Performing Arts Center, the local arts organization with the biggest budget, has not presented any such troupes or events since it opened in 1986. But president Tom Tomlinson, who has been broadening the overall scope of offerings since he took office in 1993, says center officials have been meeting with Orange County Together, a group sponsored by the United Way and the Orange County Human Relations Commission to promote understanding among diverse races and cultures.

Tomlinson says he hopes to piggyback "on some of the work O.C. Together has done, so that, for instance, if they discover it's important to have a cross-cultural arts festival, then we could say, 'That's something we know something about,' and we can be a part of that."

"I found the center to be real receptive and open on how to do this kind of outreach," says Pat Callahan, O.C. Together's executive director.

In some cases, one person can make a difference. Irvine Fine Arts Center curator Dorrit Rawlins was an early champion of Vietnamese artists. She says her interest sprang from her curatorial philosophy to explore "the perception of otherness" and to "always try to bring disparate groups together."

"Common Ground," an exhibit in 1991 of work by two local Vietnamese and two American artists, brought Vietnamese visitors to the center. Rawlins says many of them told her they never would have come to Irvine had it not been to see the show.

They also said, "It was the first time they had a coming-together with Americans that didn't have to do with the war," Rawlins adds. "It was a very profound experience. It demonstrates what art can do."

Margo Machida, an independent curator based in New York, says she believes society at large has to develop a different way of thinking for true multiculturalism to take hold. She has curated an exhibit at New York's Asia Society showcasing foreign-born artists of eight Asian nationalities (Cal State Fullerton graduate Hanh Thi Pham is among them).

"People tend to see Asians as foreigners no matter how long they are here," says Machida. "The broader public has to become aware that Asians are part of the American experience who kind of reshape it by their presence. American culture is not static, and Asians along with other groups are transforming it."

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Arts in Little Saigon: A Five-Day Series

Sunday: Over 20 years, a vibrant culture has emerged, piece by piece.

Monday: A small core of believers is working to keep traditional music alive.

Tuesday: The pop music mecca of the Vietnamese-speaking world.

Wednesday: Some artists struggle to confront the past; others try to move beyond it.

Today: How the county's arts establishment has--and hasn't--reached out to Vietnamese Americans.

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