Sawdust Festival tries to attract younger artists

As the Sawdust Art Festival prepares for its June 30 opening, officials are looking at ways to attract younger artists.
As the Sawdust Art Festival prepares for its June 30 opening, officials are looking at ways to attract younger artists who can’t afford Laguna Beach.
(David Hansen)

In 1965, the Sawdust Art Festival was the young, hippy upstart to the more stolid Festival of Arts. Now, those hippies are trying to embrace the youth movement.

But it’s not easy.

To exhibit at the Sawdust, artists must be Laguna Beach residents, but most artists can’t afford Laguna anymore, which means the number of exhibitors is down.

Longtime artist, 38-year exhibitor and former Sawdust board member Patti Jo Kiraly has been watching the decline with alarm and decided to spearhead a youth outreach effort.


“Affordable apartments are just not existing anymore,” Kiraly said. “Artists are forced out. They don’t want to leave Laguna Beach.”

Sawdust rules stipulate that artists must be a Laguna Beach resident before they are grandfathered.

“You have to establish your residency for a year and a half before you can be in your first show,” she said. “And then you have to stay in Laguna Beach for 10 years before you are allowed to move out of town.”

But artists are struggling and not just at the Sawdust. The loss is being felt throughout the community and has drawn the attention of the Laguna Beach City Council, which is researching the issue.

“We’re having a problem attracting and keeping,” Kiraly said. “People more and more are not able to get to 10 years. It used to be that people would move into Laguna just to be in the Sawdust Festival, and we’re losing some of that as well.”

The museum will host a “LAM goes BOOM” event on Saturday, featuring a documentary on the fight to save the Boom Boom Room, followed by a dance party.

June 8, 2023

As a result, Kiraly gave an impassioned speech last fall to the board that made an impact. With Kiraly at the helm, they started a “next-generation committee” to brainstorm ideas.

“The rules that we are focusing on are minimizing the amount of time a person has to live in Laguna Beach before they can be in their first show,” she said. “Right now, it’s 18 months. We’re trying to move it to a year.”

She also wants to make other changes, including a “youth booth” to feature Laguna College of Art and Design students, for example. Kiraly recently met with an LCAD official to discuss how that might happen.

Something needs to be done, she said, because the vacancy trend is clear.

“If you have an empty booth, you make it into a seating area or you make it an open space, but this has never happened before,” she said. “So it started happening, and then it happened again, and then it happened again.

“And I just started to talk to my friends about it, saying you know, our older people are getting older, retiring, moving away, passing away. Where are the new people? Where are the young people?”

Which gets back to Laguna’s lack of affordable housing.

“Certainly, we’re getting some new people; we have 17 new exhibitors this year, which is nice but it’s not enough. We’ve had some young people, but it’s really, really hard to move to Laguna to be an artist, to spend all that money to maybe not make anything.”

Kiraly is seeing the attrition in all demographic levels, even among established artists.

“Two people on my committee might not make it to 10 years,” she said. “They’ve been at the show all these years. These are people who want to stay in Laguna Beach, and they’re heartbroken at the lack of affordability.”

The committee is continuing its work and will present recommendations to the board at the next annual meeting in August. In the meantime, Kiraly welcomes ideas.

“We’re losing our artists, and Laguna is just going to be just a bunch of rich people. Without an influx of young people coming in, I don’t see how we have a really strong future in the long run. That’s my feeling.”

Sawdust FYI

The 57th Annual Sawdust Art Festival opens June 30 and runs through Sept. 3. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. Handcrafted art from 162 Laguna Beach artists, three stages of live music, complimentary art classes, glassblowing, art demonstrations and a variety of outdoor dining and saloon offerings.

DAVID HANSEN is editor of Under Laguna in Laguna Beach. He can be reached at