Although Laguna Beach has three summer arts festivals, a thriving art museum and a lively theater and music scene, the lack of a central cultural arts center remains a shortcoming, according to results of a recent survey.
Despite the survey’s findings, interviews with city officials and arts supporters reveal a lack of unanimity over whether such a need exists and how to fund it, though everyone seems to point to the same potential site downtown.
“What we need, first and foremost is a sense of place,” agreed city Arts Commissioner Suzi Chauvel.
The survey findings determined that the community would be well-served with a year-round cultural arts center that serves as a versatile home to the visual and performing arts, arts organizations and visitors. Representatives of San Diego-based Cultural Planning Group recently laid out its survey conclusions at a public meeting. The City Council hired the consultants to establish a new city cultural arts plan by taking the artistic pulse of the community and making recommendations.
Asked about prospects for such a multi-use arts center, Mayor Steve Dicterow said, “I have not yet analyzed this or talked enough with others but it would be good to have it in the same vicinity as the Laguna Playhouse,” he said. “As a citizen, my hope would be to offer as broad an art experience as we can provide. Laguna is not just the beach.”
Council member and arts champion Bob Whalen said that he has been supportive of a flexible use cultural center for many years and has met with local arts organizations to discuss possibilities.
“I felt we needed a study like the one by the Cultural Planning Group to validate that there is real interest in the community for a cultural center. I am pleased that both the Arts Commission and the Planning Commission embrace the idea as a highest priority.”
He suggested such a facility should occupy the parking lots next to City Hall. “It makes perfect sense to put it there as part of our Civic Arts District, which includes the Festival of Arts grounds and the area up to the Sawdust Festival,” he said.
He said that financing plans and options have yet to be evaluated, but that he hopes for joint public and private financing.
Whalen, who works in municipal finance professionally, recently won his colleagues’ support for $1 million matching public grants for Laguna Playhouse and the Laguna Art Museum.
While some in the community support making better use of current facilities over building a new one, Whalen says arts organizations find that existing spaces lack the flexibility to serve varied uses.
Wayne Baglin, director and treasurer of the Laguna Beach Alliance for the Arts, which represents a score of arts groups, falls into the former camp.
“I define such a center as an unrealistic goal, a pipe dream at this point. No location that would provide space and parking and no source of funding has been determined,” said Baglin, who also serves as a Festival of Arts’ board member.
He praised Laguna Playhouse for providing space for performing arts and suggested working with Laguna Beach High School to utilize its Artists’ Theatre more broadly. “The true challenge lies in finding space for visual arts, but I’m optimistic that when renovations are made to the Festival of Arts grounds, there will be excellent opportunities to use them between September and June,” he said, referring to an interior makeover postponed a year due to predicted El Nino rains.
“I get frustrated with dreams and expectations regardless of reality when it comes to projects such as an overall arts center. Financing the arts center, if the city were to do it, I don’t know how citizens of Laguna would want to spend money rather than on police, fire and safety. And, if we have a surplus, then our taxes might be too high,” Baglin said.
Joe Hanauer, co-chair of Laguna Playhouse, also seems less than convinced of the need for a new arts center, though he expressed no reservations about the city’s ability to fund one. “The city has good credit and bond capabilities. There are no economic restrictions with running surpluses, revenue from visitors and management of long range commitments,” he said.
Even so, he thinks the city would be better served by building a stronger identity for its existing individual arts districts. Conceptualizing a cultural center is a good way to start, he said. More emphasis should be paid to better utilizing existing venues and analyzing needs of arts organizations, Hanauer said.
Rosemary Swimm, executive director of the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association, which lacks a permanent home, said that such a venture should be large enough to provide room for inside and outside events and for parking.
“It would be great if non-profits wouldn’t have to hunt for venues to rent. I believe that the Festival of Arts is moving in the right direction by revamping the grounds. That might be something to be utilized as a community arts center,” Swimm suggested.
Sam Goldstein, co-founder of music presenter Laguna Beach Live, agrees with the survey’s conclusions and the inclination of the elected officials to eye the site of the much-debated village entrance.
Laguna Beach Live continues to juggle its performance schedule between venues, putting on major concerts at Laguna Playhouse and relocating its midweek jazz performances three times in recent years. Co-founder Cindy Prewitt said, “life would be a dream if we had a place were we could steadily present music.”