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Panel mulls state of the arts in Laguna

The future of Laguna Beach as an art colony was first and foremost on the minds of about 50 people who attended a panel discussion, “State of the Arts in Laguna Beach,” held at Laguna College of Art & Design (LCAD) last Saturday.

Hot issues included whether Laguna’s current reputation — as seen on MTV — is affecting the arts; the city’s public art selections; the availability of living space for artists; and the number of recent gallery closures.

Of particular interest to many was whether Laguna should cater to the aesthete or the everyday viewer — high-brow or low-brow.

The panel was co-sponsored by LCAD and the American Association of University Women, Laguna Beach Branch (AAUW-LB).

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Panelist Deena Pink of AAUW-LB, a former docent at Laguna Art Museum, said that the talk — part one of an expected two-part series — is the beginning of a “new affiliation” between the organization and the school.

Moderator Dennis Power, president of LCAD, opened the talk by giving a short art-focused history of Laguna, then let each panelist discuss the issues that were close to their hearts.

“I often say that art is in the DNA of Laguna Beach. But does that create an obligation?” Power asked the assemblage.

“While we honor the past, what about now?” Pink asked.

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Public art for all?

Panelist Pat Kollenda spoke of the city’s own arts endeavors, from public art to its Arts Commission.

“You would be absolutely floored to see the money the arts brings into this town,” Kollenda said.

But some attendees shot holes in the city’s public art selections.

“Quite a bit of it is fairly pedestrian,” an attendee said. “I think that Laguna is having a bit of an art identity crisis.”

The visitor told the panel that she purposefully changes her driving routes so as to avoid the recently-installed People’s Council statue in front of the fire department.

“The City Council chose this piece,” Kollenda said. “It doesn’t always work, because you have to go through this process.”

A second attendee noted that the statue “makes people talk.” Another person said he liked the piece.

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Several attendees said the Arts Commission would be well-advised to bring in at least one professional artist when judging competition entries.

Kollenda told them that four of the seven currently seated Arts Commissioners are artists.

Familiarity breeds contempt?

Victoria Murphy, another panelist, indicated a concern that the art in Laguna may be too self-referential.

Murphy curates the Young Artists Society gallery at the Laguna Art Museum.

“People come here who are similar to the art,” she said. “Maybe it’s devolved.”

Panelist and artist Sandra Jones Campbell picked up on Murphy’s thoughts when she spoke, describing being a Laguna artist as a “golden handcuff.”

“I have a comfortable life here,” she said. “I’m very fortunate. But if you lock yourself into one direction, you’re not going to get anywhere.”

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She was concerned that festival artists, for example, grow to expect the festivals to draw in patrons, rather than doing their own leg work.

Murphy described a gallery she ran in Costa Mesa in the 1980s that originally focused on bringing national and international names to Orange County.

“But we were forced to go regional,” she said, because people who wanted to be in that type of scene would go to Los Angeles instead of Orange County.

Her gallery lasted four years.

Murphy said that former Laguna Art Museum curator Tyler Stallings “pushed the envelope,” bringing more diverse art to the town.

“We need to put some cayenne pepper into the mix,” she said.

Get flexible

Panelist Charlie Ferrazzi, a gallery owner and head of First Thursdays Art Walk, said that being a gallery owner requires industry savvy, in addition to moxie and an eye for art.

“You can’t just throw your doors open and expect them [customers] to show up,” she said.

Overhead and other economic factors still exist in the art world, she said; the former gallery Chinese Contemporary Art switched to an Internet-only model so that it could attract a worldwide clientele without maintaining a bricks-and-mortar storefront.

“When it comes down to the bottom line, it’s economics,” Kollenda said. “It’s really difficult to be an artist and live in Laguna. We need artist live-work space. How can a new, young artist afford to live in this city?”

Murphy said lack of affordable housing affects other arts organizations as well.

“We don’t have a museum education curator,” Murphy said. “We can’t find a curator who can afford to live in Laguna.”

The MTV effect

“We’re all in the same community, but I don’t feel a sense of cohesiveness,” Jones Campbell said. She said that MTV’s foray into town and other intrusions have created a “different kind of tempo” in town.

Murphy asked whether the kind of “buzz” the community creates is the right kind in the long term.

She spoke of how events like First Thursdays Art Walk create an air of entertainment, rather than education, describing people she knows who don’t go to Art Walk because they aren’t able to focus on the art when they attend.

Ferrazzi refuted this, saying that Art Walk is an opportunity for people to enter the art world who normally might not; they can be educated through artist demonstrations and other events that take place on First Thursdays.

“It’s all to help people learn at a comfortable level, not a lecture or a school situation,” she said.

Political clout

A Laguna native in the audience warned that there is a newer group of wealthy people in Laguna who would happily see the city’s art endeavors stopped.

“You need to be more political; more aggressive,” he said to the panelists.

Kollenda concurred.

“It’s all about being vocal at the City Council meetings,” she said.

“We must be a vocal, vocal group that is educated and elects people who support the arts.”

Kollenda described how a handful of neighbors affected the Arts Commission’s annual Music in the Park series.

“Seven people caused us to drop a concert,” she said. “If you feel strongly about something, you have to speak up.”


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