New leader in town

Barbara Diamond

The Festival of Arts hired a debonair, energetic, former museum

director to head its team of professionals and volunteers into a

challenging future.

"I knew this job was going to be a challenge when the first thing

I saw in my office was a panic button under the desk," joked Steven

L. Brezzo, 53.

Tuesday was the trim and breezy Brezzo's first day on the job.

Festival President Scott Moore introduced Brezzo to the City Council

and the community at the council meeting that night. Festival search

committee members and Brezzo backers Bruce Rasner and Kathleen

Blackburn also attended.

"I am pleased to be here and to work with a community that is such

a great supporter of the arts," Brezzo said.

Rasner said Brezzo's track record and energy impressed the search

committee from the get-go.

"He has been there, done that," Rasner said. "We had actively

searched for five months and when we looked at the finalists, he

stood alone with his background in the visual arts. We wanted someone

to regain the prestige of the festival as a first-class art venue."

Brezzo spent his entire career until 1999 working in San Diego

museums. Since then he has been bi-coastal, creating traveling

exhibitions and consulting with museums and foundations to establish

new opportunities and expanded programming.

"I first came to California through a Rockerfeller Foundation

program almost 35 years ago," said Brezzo, a native of New Jersey,

who grew up in Pennsylvania and attended college in Connecticut.

He had recently graduated with a master's degree in theater and

fine arts when he was selected as a museum educator by the La Jolla

Museum of Contemporary Art, now the San Diego Museum of Contemporary

Art.

"It was during the halcyon days when museums were abandoning

elitism and opening their intellectual arms to bring in new

audiences," Brezzo said.

He moved to the San Diego Art Museum in 1980 as assistant director

and worked there until his contract was not renewed in 1999.

Brezzo was in New York this year when he heard about the

festival's search for an executive director and made contact. He was

in London when festival headhunter Rasner called about the job.

"I visited three or four times," Brezzo said. "I wanted to assure

myself that it was a match: that the festival's expectations were

attainable and the board was ready to make the leap. They have been

very forthcoming and realistic."

Festival President Moore said the board, most of whom had fought

to keep the Pageant of the Masters and the art exhibits from moving

to San Clemente and had negotiated the still-unsigned lease with the

city, realized they needed help in achieving their long range goals.

"We were tired," Moore said. "This guy has the creative energy

that gives you the feeling that no matter what the task he could

carry it out and you'd be proud of the what he did."

Brezzo said achieving the goals of the festival board would be a

collaborative effort.

"I will be giving them a sense of the capacity for growth and we

will work together to attain that growth," Brezzo said.

His position of executive director includes fund-raising.

"An executive director has a responsibility to see that the vision

is funded," Brezzo said. "While I was at San Diego, the endowment

fund was increased from $6 million to about $80 million."

He also increased membership, a goal set for the festival.

His blueprint: "You build membership through attendance, through

attendance you build patronage and through patronage you build the

endowment."

Brezzo attributes his selection by the board to his experience and

his personal characteristics.

"I have an entrepreneurial sense," he said. "I am inventive and

creative in matching funding and programming. I am tenacious. I

believe in the arts and the creative process and I understand the

realistic elements of being an artist and I am sympathetic to their

needs. My talents are extremely eclectic, a broad spectrum of arts

and programming."

Brezzo sees the festival grounds energized with lectures,

exhibitions, special programs and events, some particularly for

children. He was impressed with the community support for the Jane

Goodall lecture in the Festival Forum Theatre on Sept. 18.

The board approved Brezzo's contract earlier this month. He and

his wife, Dagmar, expect to move shortly into a home on which they

have made an offer in Arch Beach Heights.

In the meantime, they are living in Lake Forest with their two

West Highland White Terriers and a Yorkshire Terrier.

When he moves into town, Brezzo will be packing some baggage from

San Diego.

His departure from the San Diego Museum of Art was not amicable.

The board that had hired him and supported him was long gone. The San

Diego Union harshly criticized him for lavish spending, the quality

of the museum's collection, his trips abroad and his high salary. His

contract was not renewed.

Brezzo said his departure from the San Diego museum was really a

culture clash.

"The San Diego Union always had been adamantly against and

energetically opposed to popular shows," Brezzo said. "I did a Norman

Rockwell show, the Art of Puppetry show, the art of Faberge show.

"I represented a kind of populist, open-door policy. The

electronic media were on my side, the San Diego Transcript

[newspaper] was for me."

However, Brezzo said, public criticism takes a toll on an

institution and on the board.

"The board didn't want to take any more hits," Brezzo said.

"Basically, there was a coup, and I departed."

According to an "Arts Journal" story he supplied, museum

directorship is a thankless task, not nearly as economically

rewarding as heading a large company, and job security is iffy.

Tenure lasts on an average of five to seven years, Brezzo said,

and the directors are always in the spotlight, on the spot and

vulnerable to critics.

So why take a job with an organization that has been in turmoil

for five years; that barely survived a hijacking, stymied only by a

nasty recall election of the previous board; and exhausting lease

negotiations?

"I was looking to work with an organization that was firmly

committed to outreach and in a position to expand its audience,"

Brezzo said.

Brezzo declined to comment on his Festival of Arts salary, agreed

upon in a closed session meeting of the festival board. Reports range

from "six figures" to "$175,000 plus benefits and incentives that

guarantees $200,000 a year" -- both from board members who did not

want their names used.

"It bothers me considerably that the festival used to be a

wide-open operation," said board member David Young. "Now, two-thirds

of our business is done in closed session."

Young is president of the Festival of Arts Foundation, giver of

grants to arts organizations and scholarships to budding performing

or visual artists. The foundation was funded by, but is legally

separate from the festival and operated by a separate board.

"Last year we gave $75,000 in scholarships and another $60,000 to

various art organizations," Young said. "We were supposed to get

funds every year from the festival, but we haven't received a nickel

for the last five or six years."

More money to support art groups and artists was a key element in

the reduction of the rent the festival pays to the city for the

publicly-owned grounds.

"They have the right to go and seek the talent they think they

need to take the festival into this next century," said Mayor Wayne

Baglin. "I am fully supportive of that and they have a far better

idea of what the cost was to fill the spot because they held a

search.

"I don't think we would want them to be telling us what to pay the

city manager and I know we should not be telling them what to pay the

executive director."

Board member Young considers Brezzo's appointment controversial

and salary excessive, but Young missed two closed sessions at which

the appointment was discussed and approved.

"That makes it hard for me to raise too much hell, but we are

supposed to give money, not get money and this guy is a fund-raiser,"

Young said.

Board member Blackburn said she threw her support to Brezzo

because he thinks outside the box.

"I am considered to be a visionary, but not unrealistic or naive

and I have a track record of building and developing institutions,"

Brezzo said. "I am looking forward to becoming a part of one of the

nation's most energetic and active arts communities and I am

delighted to help lead the festival as it retains and expands its

position as one of the region's unique treasures."

* BARBARA DIAMOND is a reporter for the Laguna Beach Coastline

Pilot. She may be reached at 494-4321.

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