Laguna Beach locals know the city was founded as an art colony, a progressive hamlet by the sea filled with quirky cosmopolitan types who embraced diversity and egalitarianism.
To this day, Lagunans believe they are enlightened, fair and exceptionally artsy.
There’s only one problem.
The Laguna art community is almost entirely white, matching the city’s demographics, which means it’s about as diverse as one of those inexplicable modern paintings with only one color.
And in Laguna that color means eggshell white, alabaster white or opulent white.
This reality is never discussed during Art Walk while sipping chardonnay. Why?
Because no one talks about race in Laguna when you’re the whitest city in Orange County.
Just as no one really thinks about the fact that the Sawdust Art Festival has more than 200 Laguna artists exhibiting but there’s only one African American, a young biracial jewelry maker who only recently started exhibiting at the show.
After researching the entire summer roster of artists at Sawdust, I counted only 12 non-Caucasians, or less than 6% of the total. Half of those are Mexican-American artists. The remaining are split between ethnic Europe and the Middle East, with one from Asia. Most were born and raised in the United States.
Sawdust officials know they are limited by race because exhibitors need to be local, but they do what they can.
“There is diversity in terms of nationality and sexual orientation, but there’s just not a lot of African American representation,” said Cliff Wassman, a board member and an award-winning photographer. “From time to time we reach out to schools with the Sawdust Art Enrichment Fund. We reach out to homeless shelters and such to do classes. So we have those types of programs, but they’re not just specific to race.”
Nonetheless, the Sawdust numbers are lower than Laguna’s overall demographics on a percentage basis.
According to 2016 Census data, Laguna is about 84% white, more than any other Orange County city. The second-whitest community in the county is Newport Beach (80.1%), followed by Laguna Woods (79.9%), Coto de Caza (79.6%) and Dana Point (75.7%).
By comparison, Irvine is 45.3% Asian and 39.8% white. Santa Ana is 78.2% Hispanic and just 8.39% white.
Many would argue that Santa Ana has a more robust, compelling art scene than Laguna, which brings us back to the city’s white-speckled sands.
Why is it that a city that claims to be so artistic, progressive and unique is in fact extremely vanilla?
There is no good answer.
There are economic answers, but they aren’t good ones.
There are cultural answers, but they aren’t satisfying.
There are vaguely prejudicial answers, but no one wants to say them out loud.
The economic reason that artistic diversity is non-existent in Laguna is simple: Young minority artists can’t afford to live in Laguna.
Between 2000 and 2016, the median home sale price of existing homes increased about 170%, from $631,000 to $1.7 million , according to the Census. No “normal artist” can afford a $1.7-million home. And rents often are more than mortgages.
To exacerbate that problem, the city refuses to aggressively support more affordable housing. New projects could be started downtown to allow for discrete urban lofts for students or artists, without jeopardizing the sacred height limit.
The canyon also has land opportunities, but developers are often hamstrung because of onerous zoning and a wrongheaded perception that the “rural character” would be destroyed.
Ironically, the Laguna College of Art + Design is leading the way in artist diversity. In the 2015-16 school year, college enrollment was about 40% white, 16% Hispanic, 13% Asian and 2.77% “non-resident aliens.”
That’s about half the percentage of whites in Laguna and twice the percentage of everyone else.
And if you were to go into the LCAD studio on Ocean Way, you would see the result: It’s double the fun.
With all due respect to my Sawdust friends, what’s coming out of LCAD is generally more interesting than what’s filling the stalls at Sawdust. Like Laguna, Sawdust is old, white and tired. It needs a healthy infusion of youth and diversity — now.
Look, I’m old, white and tired, but do I want to look at myself in the mirror every day? No.
To be fair, Laguna’s art scene in general is making headway. The galleries are competing more aggressively than ever. There is a renewed energy and refreshing world view. Galleries like Saltfineart, Sue Greenwood, JoAnne Artman and many others are doing great work. But the difference is they have the luxury of attracting artists from all over the world.
Sawdust does not. By definition, it pulls only from Laguna for the summer show. This requirement “keeps Laguna Laguna.”
Which is the problem.
Obviously, there are a lot of brilliant Laguna artists. It’s just that they are brilliant white Laguna artists.
In this age of empowerment and diversity, Laguna Beach looks less like an eclectic art colony and more like a private country club.
Unless we can open the gates, cultivate new alternative artists and keep LCAD students from leaving, Laguna and its art scene will continue to fade while entrenched benefactors debate the best color of white for the garden walls.
DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.