Finding a Home for Art in Churches

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By Jean Ardell, Special to the Independent
Artists and churches in Laguna Beach both strive to find an audience. Some have been collaborating to their mutual benefit. Others are hoping to.

Recently a candidate for City Council suggested that such collaborations, perhaps with an assist by city staff, could help address both the financial needs of some places of worship and the logistical needs of arts organizations for better venues. “With declining membership and income, some of our churches are having a tough time. It seemed to me that the city could contact churches to inquire if they might have performance space that the city could use for a fee,” said candidate Verna Rollinger, expanding on a comment she first made in a candidate forum Thursday, Oct. 6.

The idea was already in play around town. Susan Brown, an art conservator, said she was at the Laguna Beach Farmers’ Market when she ran into an artist who was excited about the idea. Brown, who chairs the Neighborhood Congregational Church outreach and art committees, said, “Ironically, we were just discussing that very idea in committee. We want to be more involved.”

Brown envisions opening up the church’s Bridge Hall and the adjacent courtyard to artists who cannot afford the space at more expensive venues in town. “I see it as a place to welcome artists, where they can congregate.” Brown pointed out that such continuing collaborations are not always simple. You have to ask, “What does it take to show the artwork properly?”

Pam Selowski, the administrative secretary at Laguna Beach United Methodist Church, voiced other concerns. “We rent our parking lot to Montage and The Ranch, and it’s working well. But whenever you rent out a facility there’s wear and tear and security issues. Not all churches are staffed to handle these concerns.”

Mandy McDow, senior minister at United Methodist, added: “The church should be engaged with the community. The challenge becomes what’s an outreach and what’s a ministry? It’s a fine line. That said, my belief is that our building should never be empty.”

Some of the churches in town already rent their facilities to various groups. Laguna Presbyterian Church hosts the Laguna Beach Garden Club; the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship hosts Village Laguna and the Laguna Beach Democratic Club. Some churches have an existing connection to the arts. The Methodist Church has hosted a weekly class of water-colorists for decades. The Congregational Church annually hosts the monks of Drepung Loseling Monastery for a weeklong series of events featuring the mystical arts of Tibet. A visit to the sanctuary this past Tuesday showed the monks piecing together a colorful mosaic-like sand mandala of the medicine Buddha.

Arts presenter Laguna Beach Live must turn away patrons at the popular outdoor summer jazz concerts at Hotel Laguna for lack of a larger venue. Photo courtesy of Laguna Beach Live.
Arts presenter Laguna Beach Live must turn away patrons at the popular outdoor summer jazz concerts at Hotel Laguna for lack of a larger venue. Photo courtesy of Laguna Beach Live.

Not all arts organizations, however, have been able to find the right venue. Cindy Pruitt, the founder and president of Laguna Beach Live! organizes 35 concerts annually. “We’ve begged and borrowed venues over the last 15 years. I think I’ve been as efficient as possible, but it’s not always a perfect fit. Most of the local venues cannot seat the 350 to 400 people we need to sustain a production. The bigger the hall, the bigger the talent you can get.”

Laguna Beach High School’s Artists’ Theatre has ample seating and the city and the school district enjoy an existing shared-use agreement, but the theater is often booked for school productions and events. Pruitt said presenting organizations have difficulty booking performers without securing the right venue a year in advance. She would prefer a new multi-use building that could also be used for music education and lectures. Such a concept was endorsed by only 25 percent of resident polled in a wide-ranging survey in June.

Jewelry designer Jahn Levitt, however, thinks looking at existing church venues has merit for smaller artistic events. “Many of my friends don’t have a place to show their work

. Not everyone can get into the Sawdust Festival,” Levitt claimed, which is why she is organizing a committee to pursue more collaboration. Levitt wants to include the visual arts as well music, plays, and poetry. “Years ago there used to be a poetry group at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church,” she recalled. “Whatever happened to that?”

The new priest in charge at St. Mary’s, Father Lester V. MacKenzie, arrived in town several weeks ago. Father Mack was hired, according St. Mary’s junior warden Larry Spang, “to lead us to more involvement with community. So most enthusiastically we’d like to do something. To be involved with the arts would be a good marriage for St. Mary’s.”

It’s clear that the conversation will likely continue as local artists and churches seek one another out. The process of finding the right fit between the two may require the time and perseverance of the Tibetan monks, who painstakingly develop the right mix of color and design in the art they create.

Rollinger concluded, “It just seems to me we could do a better job of it. If the city’s arts need performance space, it makes sense to look for it.”

Writer Jean Ardell is a Laguna Beach resident and author of two books.

 

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