Artists Colony Exhibits a Jarring Start : Santa Ana: Display of condoms and honey stirs protest at fledgling center.


A display of condoms floating in 19 jars of honey, shown at a summer art exhibit here, stirred up a brief tempest that has left the community with unexpected and lingering questions about artistic freedom and censorship.

The protest over the display, titled "Our Dilemma," is giving the city's fledgling arts colony--the first such publicly funded enterprise in Orange County--its first real recognition and, some say, validity.

And rather than shying away after the mini-furor, more artists are flocking to the Artists Village.

"It had a great effect because it's helped legitimize the effort" said Don Cribb, a local activist who led the drive to create the artists colony. "Some controversy is an integral part of what freedom of expression is. People think and talk . . . and that's what a community is about."

Suddenly, the city that has battled a reputation for high crime is drawing attention for something far different--art. But it may come at the price of continuing dispute over taste and artistic freedom.

City Councilman Ted R. Moreno, a frequent critic of the village who claimed that the honey jars and condom exhibit was non-art and an attack on religion, said he will propose a review panel to monitor artworks in publicly funded galleries.

"Art is not supposed to offend," said Moreno. "Look at the definition of art in the dictionary. It's supposed to be pleasing to the soul."

That statement, it would appear, throws down the philosophical gauntlet to artists who demand the right to unfettered expression.

"You can't have a creative environment and have that sort of censorship," said Santa Ana artist Connie Sasso, who crafted "Our Dilemma."

Indeed the dispute over her work, and the aftermath, have been a rite of passage for the artists colony.

Yet, Orange County is no stranger to arts controversies.

In 1990, a photo of a naked John Lennon was briefly pulled from a Fullerton art exhibit, and months later, a poster of an Icarus figure commissioned for the John Wayne Airport was squelched, partly because of concerns over nudity. (One airport commissioner wryly noted that the poster contained no planes.)

But something unique is at stake in Santa Ana.

The Artists Village near Broadway and 2nd streets would be the first such colony in the county planned and funded by a municipality.

Although Laguna Beach is well known as a city full of artists, the city does not fund the local art galleries or festivals, and has not attempted to formally designate the city as an artists colony.

Santa Ana's village is a combination of private and public buildings. But a village centerpiece, the historic Grand Central Building, is being purchased and renovated by the city for more than $4 million.

The city plans to lease the building to Cal State Fullerton for $1 a year for 10 years. In turn, the university will run a gallery and restaurant out of the building, and house art students there as well.

"Santa Ana has spent nearly $10,000 advertising the village, and more than $1,000 to subsidize the business licenses of eight art galleries, said Susan Jones-Helper, the city's downtown project manager. The city also fields calls and sends out brochures to those interested in moving into the village area, she said.

But when it comes to advertising, there is nothing like the publicity the village received over artist Sasso's "Our Dilemma."

Sasso, a converted Catholic, said her exhibit was meant to illustrate a dilemma for Catholics: that the church prohibits birth control, such as condoms, while AIDS runs rampant and the earth remains overpopulated. She said the honey is meant to symbolize the sweetness of the sex act.

An unappreciative Moreno first made his objections known at a July council meeting, saying, "We will be criticized up here, as elected officials, for subsidizing those types of programs."

Following his remarks, more than two dozen pickets appeared outside the privately run Santora Arts Complex, where Sasso's exhibit was displayed, and a handful of people from throughout the county later told the council they were offended by the exhibit. The council took no action.

"I respect their position and they have a right to say those things and act that way," Sasso said of her detractors. But, she added, "I did not do this piece to insult people."

However, the protest had an effect: It emboldened artists.

One of the first artists to move into the village, Gerald Schwartz, said the adversity hardly discouraged artists. "Not at all. The mentality of the artist is different, because the artist will look at controversy as something of real substance. . . . If anything, it will make them get involved."

Since the demonstration over "Our Dilemma," the leasing agent for three buildings in downtown Santa Ana said he has rented at least half a dozen artists spaces.

Almost two dozen other artists have expressed interest in spaces, said Gil Marrero, with Voit Commercial properties. Marrero said 27 of the Santora Building's 40 spaces are rented.

But everyone agrees that friction over the arts in Santa Ana will continue, and Moreno vowed to unveil plans for a review panel of business owners and community members to monitor complaints, although it would not screen art before it goes on exhibit in publicly funded galleries.

"If we are going to give the Grand Central Building money, there should be some language" addressing the type of art that is displayed, Moreno said. "Whenever taxpayer money is given, strings are always attached."

Only one council member, Tony Espinoza, has so far expressed support for the review board. Other council members say it is not their job to police the arts and would leave such decisions up to the artists.

If the review board is established, artist Schwartz suspects that some artists would show works sure to offend just to throw a wrench into the system. "A group of artists would come in to get the controversy and confront [Moreno] on it," he said. "To me, that would be very exciting."

Yet such defiance does not mean that the protests have not had a chilling affect.

Some artists say the dispute taught them to be more sensitive to community concerns, and they are considering posting warning signs about controversial art or putting such works in secluded areas.

"Will I monitor myself to make sure that I don't get myself in trouble with Ted Moreno again? Absolutely not," said Sasso.

But, she added: "Would I show my work in the same situation again? That's a good question."

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