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From Canyon To Cove: Highs and lows of the last year in the arts

The arts did not escape the tumult of 2009, mainly as fallout continued from the global economic meltdown that sent many businesses and nonprofits scurrying for cover by cutting costs, downsizing and selling assets.

The year started with the shocking news that Laguna Playhouse would sell an adjacent property at 580 Broadway that had been purchased 11 years earlier to grow the theater. A few months later, the property was sold with proceeds going toward a campaign to “strengthen the playhouse,” officials said.

While Laguna Playhouse officially gave up its expansion plans, Laguna Art Museum reported a massive deficit in October, with more than $500,000 lost over the last fiscal year. Later that month, the James Irvine Foundation came to a partial rescue with an infusion of $375,000.

This must have been especially gut-wrenching for museum officials, coming only months after it was reported that a treasure trove of early plein air paintings — part of the museum’s original holdings — were sold at a “fire sale” price by the Orange County Museum of Art. Ironically, the 18 paintings became the property of a Laguna Beach resident who remains unnamed. News of the sale got regional coverage and brought up again for Lagunans the agony over the failed mid-1990s merger between the two museums, which resulted in the loss of those very paintings. Memories are still fresh over the aborted merger attempt and its fallout remains to this day.

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One piece of artistic justice did come when a fugitive art thief was captured in Hawaii and $500,000 worth of paintings stolen in Laguna Beach in 1999 were recovered. Joseph Michael Killebrew apparently was not only an art thief but an art lover: He had kept the paintings on display in his home all that time, apparently unwilling to part with them.

Local sculptor Jon Seeman made art news when the City Council, rejecting the recommendation of the Arts Commission, declined to put his whale sculpture in front of the newly built Community/Senior Center on Third Street. The 18-foot-tall “Breeching Whale” was given a spot at Heisler Park instead, but critics still contend the whale would have been a suitable denizen of Third Street.

A mural at Thalia Street beach was at loggerheads as two muralists and their supporters competed for the right to paint on the beach wall, but the Arts Commission bowed out of this one.

The “Big Splash” had its last performance in 2009 after 24 years and $9 million raised for the AIDS Services Foundation. Organizer Ken Jillson said the swim-themed event will be replaced by another kind of fundraiser, so the fun — and funds — will go on.

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The second annual EcoFest was downsized to the Lumberyard Mall, after last year filling up the Festival of Arts grounds. The October ecological festival was moved to a smaller venue this year to keep it going in an ebbing economy, said organizer Charles Michael Murray, founder of Endangered Planet.

“We wanted to keep the dream alive even though [low] budgets have impacted people’s lives and businesses, including our foundation,” he said.

The summer arts festivals were surprisingly strong for a tough economy.

“The Festival of Arts came through 2009 with barely a scratch,” the Coastline Pilot reported. “‘In 2009, when the economy and real estate tanked and the [U.S.] president is being challenged to make good on campaign promises, we had a banner year,’ said festival President Wayne Baglin. The Pageant of the Masters sold out for the 12th consecutive year, and ground attendance was up.”

A report that the Sawdust Festival was in financial straits was shouted down by festival Executive Director Tom Klingenmeier.

“The Sawdust Art Festival is doing just fine this year, according to one official, despite reports that the 44-year-old festival has been operating in the red for the past two years,” the Coastline Pilot reported. “‘The Sawdust is not in critical condition,’ Klingenmeier said. ‘Our reserves are down a couple thousand dollars. We will be in a solid position at the end of the season.’”

As if to punctuate Klingenmeier’s optimism, the Sawdust reported that total paid attendance for the first three weeks of its Winter Fantasy was up 9.3% from last year.

Also at Sawdust, Dion Wright marked 50 years as a Laguna artist Sept. 4. Wright, one of the Sawdust Art Festival’s founders, completed his 50th season in the Laguna Beach art festivals on the closing day of the Sawdust’s 2009 summer season.

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Wright started his festival career at the Festival of Arts when he was juried into the 1959 show, and eventually helped create the Sawdust, a non-juried art festival. He has been exhibiting his metal sculptures there almost every season.

Another golden anniversary in arts and culture was celebrated in 2009: The Hortense Miller Garden turned 50, and Friends of the garden held two commemorative events over the summer, a photography exhibit and open house, to mark the occasion.

The Laguna Beach Visitors and Conference Bureau was mighty proud when its film, “Tidepool Scene,” won an award for excellence in television in the category for Children’s Programming at the Emmy Awards for the Pacific Southwest Region of the National Academy of Television Arts and Science in San Diego. The film is found in most of the city’s hotel rooms.

The bureau was also at the helm when the innovative Passport to the Arts program was inaugurated in 2009. For $19, art lovers had summer-long unlimited access to the Festival of Arts, Sawdust Art Festival and Art-A-Fair, plus other goodies.

“Passport to the Arts is a response to the new economic climate,” said Sian Poeschl, the city’s cultural arts manager, when the program was announced. “Our guests asked for ease of use to participate in all three festivals. This is a state-of-the art collaborative strategy to offer value and quality to our customers.” The program’s success has led to its being repeated in 2010.

Another innovation to help “starving artists” in 2009 was the city-sponsored Artist Open Studios, which offers the public a chance to visit with 26 professional artists in their working studios from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. the first Saturday of the month. And hopefully bring their checkbooks!

When the Cultural Arts Department decided to eliminate 86 worn-out holiday palettes, the City Council interceded by insisting that artists or their families be allowed to retrieve them, which some have.

In another ominous sign of the times, the Irvine Bowl became the scene of an unusual “pageant” in March when the National Guard staged a mock event involving a “dirty” bomb scenario.

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“Instead of hosting meticulously costumed volunteers posing amid classic works of art, the Festival of Arts/Pageant of the Masters venue became the setting for a mock investigation of weapons of mass destruction,” The Coastline Pilot reported.

“The scenario included camouflage-clad National Guardsmen, Orange County hazardous materials units, and Laguna Beach firefighters and police.”

Last but not least, the year ended on a sad note for the arts when “art row” mainstay Sherwood Gallery announced it would close its doors for good at the end of January.

It can only go up from here.


CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 380-4321 or cindy.frazier@latimes.com.


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