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For the Arts, ‘09 Ends on a Hopeful Note

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens’ timeless pronouncement from “A Tale of Two Cities” proves a fitting corollary for arts organizations in 2009.

The worst? That would be the over-arching recession that shriveled the support of donors and the size of audiences.

Yet, it appears that the best won out by a narrow margin, according to arts observers, with Laguna’s arts group soldiering on with high-caliber performances.

Led by artistic director Jodie Gates, CADance performers showed their mettle during this fall’s Festival of Dance in spite of competition from the Orange County Performing Arts Center and a financial pinch.

The Laguna Playhouse dropped plans for a second stage and took other belt-tightening measures, but showed hits like the “Tribute to Frank Sinatra” and “Moonlight and Magnolias.”  While celebrating its 94th birthday, the theater introduced actress Ann Rutherford (also 94), the last survivor of the cast of the historic blockbuster film “Gone With the Wind.”

Despite chronic financial pains, Gallimaufry Performing Arts hosted the Second Annual Laguna Beach New Play festival and staged “Merry Christmas 2116,” a musical with lyrics by Ray Bradbury.

In a similar vein, the Pageant of the Masters enacted “The Muse,” a critically lauded tribute to the women who inspired male artists and, less known, made art themselves. Dan Duling, the show’s scriptwriter and a self-described feminist, called Muse one of the most exciting projects in his career.

Proving that optimists are a hardy species, three new contemporary art galleries opened last year. Naomi Arin, a newcomer from Las Vegas opened Arin Contemporary Art, making her venue the most cutting-edge one on the block. Carla Tesak Arzente, an El Salvadoran native, opened Salt Fine Art specializing in Latin American works with emphasis on artists from her home country. Art Project opened early in the year as Art Projekts but was renamed Art Cube after the partnership between Laurie Swensen and Sanja Simidzija dissolved. The Forest Avenue venue specializes in well-chosen, accessible multi-media works. 

Musicians did their part to lift spirits during the Laguna Beach Music Festival. Cellist Lynn Harrell, pianist Victor Santiago Asunción and soprano Frances Young teamed up with young musicians for performances and educational programs. Harrell doubled as mentor in residence to tomorrow’s stars.

Speaking of stars of tomorrow: Laguna Beach High School’s theater students production of “Fiddler on the Roof” rivaled those of New York pros. Playing the demanding role of Tevya, senior Nicolai Doerng-Stearns immersed himself successfully into the persona of a poor milkman trying to make sense of an unjust world.

At year’s end, No Square Theater’s “Lagunatics” provided the usual levity while making audiences ponder local issues and foibles.

Two art capers made news in 2009, one with a made-for-TV conclusion and another merely controversial. On a tip, Laguna cops flew to Las Vegas and arrested Joseph Michael Killebrew, a suspect in the 10-year-old theft of paintings from several galleries. The art-loving thief wrote checks for his booty and then stopped payment. This fall, DeRu’s Fine Art got back their Edgar Payne, Elmer Wachtel and Carl Sammons works. The Redfern Gallery recovered a Colin Campbell Cooper. Killebrew was convicted and sentenced to nearly three years in jail.

In art circles, speculation still circulates about the unidentified art collector who bought 18 California Impressionist paintings from the Orange County Museum of Art for $963,000. OCMA director Dennis Szakacs incurred the ire of his peers by not informing museum colleagues the paintings were available.

Since the works were in Laguna Art Museum’s permanent collection before a notorious and dissolved merger with OCMA, local trustees were more than miffed. “Art should stay in the public forum,” said Lou Rohl, the Laguna museum’s former president.

Despite that low point, as well as a $500,000 financial loss due in part to investment fluctuations and exhibition costs, the museum staff also earned several kudos from its peers in the past year.

The museum received critical and public acclaim with an extensive Roger Kuntz retrospective illuminating the visionary Laguna Beach artist’s life and work. Its genre-stretching “World of Warcraft” exhibit also earned the museum new friends, said museum director Bolton Colburn. The museum capped the year with a $375,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation to help bolster its infrastructure and broaden its outreach.

CaDance president Stuart Byer blames a difficult economy for lower ticket sales and donations. Nevertheless, he said in an e-mail, neither the Laguna Dance Festival, Pageant of the Masters, No Square Theatre nor Laguna Music Festival ended in the red due to austere budgeting by organizers.

He also cited the Susi Q Senior Center’s opening in February of this year as an emerging showcase for non-professional artists and community art groups. 

The city’s Arts Commission administered public art programs still flourished. Benches by Doug Snider made a cartoon-like statement, installed near the Sawdust Festival and Art-A-Fair, and a new entry designed by Jon Seeman opens at Bluebird Park.

The commission itself underwent changes: Nancy Beverage and Terry Smith did not seek re-appointment, succeeded by Lisa Mansour and Bill Atkinson. Mike Tauber retired mid-term to devote himself to his public art career, and Diane Debilzan replaced him. Joan Corman withdrew in October and Gerard Stripling took her seat.

Pat Kollenda, the commission’s chair, while concerned about the economy, offered an upbeat summation by emphasizing that creativity and resiliency prevail. “The arts community is alive and thriving, with 22 members of the Arts Alliance, public art competitions and exhibits, vibrant art galleries, and hugely gifted local talent…we are indeed blessed,” she said.

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