A white clad army of 180 people marched across Main Beach at sunset in October 2014 like a human strand of pearls on the sand. When they retraced their steps, they revealed blue-lit orbs that cast an eerie glow on the performance art of Lita Albuquerque for the Laguna Art Museum.
That same year, cross-over composer Gabriel Kahane performed excerpts from an album about Los Angeles landmarks that combined elements of pop and classical music for the Laguna Beach Live! music festival.
And soon Laguna Beach will undertake two studies; one explores how to curb the exodus of local artists and the other excavates the impact of devising more creative workspaces. Both are part of developing a cultural arts blueprint to guide decision-making by elected officials.
The three examples each benefited from five-figure grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the arts agency whose $148 million budget was dropped from the federal budget proposed by the Trump administration last week.
Coincidentally, Mayor Toni Iseman met with NEA administrators in Washington, D.C., the day prior to the budget announcement, pitching an arts idea that she said received initial interest.
“We’ve definitely benefited,” said Iseman, from NEA support for arts organizations and arts infrastructure within the community.
Direct and indirect spending by arts organizations and their audiences in Laguna Beach tallies $49.1 million annually, including $2 million in local government revenue, pointed out the city’s cultural arts manager, Sian Poeschl.
She cited a 2012 Arts and Economic Prosperity Report by Americans for the Arts, an arts advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. On a per capita basis, Laguna art spending corresponds with better-known culture-capitals such as New York and Chicago.
Iseman predicted the NEA “won’t be eliminated, but wounded and injured. I can’t imagine it’s acceptable to Congress.”
For Laguna’s art manager, the NEA’s $25,000 contribution towards developing a long-range cultural arts plan provided essential underpinning to more methodically pursue infrastructure for artists, Poeschl said. “This is a very big picture view. It’s not based on anecdotal information or a personal viewpoint,” she said.
Aside from the size of the NEA grant, its receipt confers credibility that the community is worthy of the agency’s investment, Poeschl said.
Local arts leaders say the announcement did not set off a frantic scramble for development dollars as none of them count significantly on NEA funding.
Laguna Beach Live! twice received NEA grants for its chamber music festival, which is now administered by the Philharmonic Society. “There is a push to campaign nationally against the cuts and we certainly will add our voice,” said Cindy Prewitt, president of the music presenter.
“The loss of the NEA wouldn’t be a major blow financially for us, just demoralizing,” added Malcolm Warner, executive director of Laguna Art Museum. A $30,000 NEA grant helped fund the museum’s Art & Nature Festival that included the Main Beach work.
An even worse blow to arts lovers would be the loss of NEA’s indemnity coverage, providing free insurance for major exhibitions, said Warner, though the Laguna museum has never had an exhibition at that level.
The exhibitions approved for indemnity are typically ones organized by large museums and feature irreplaceable art, such as the Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibit currently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Warner said he served on the panel that reviewed requests for indemnity between 2011 and 2015.
“The important point is that shows like this that feature works of high value by the great artists will happen far less often in the U.S. if the federal indemnity program disappears,” Warner said. “Most museums will simply stop trying to organize them because commercial insurance for works of art on this level of value is so expensive.”