The largest grants ever received by two cornerstone art institutions in Laguna Beach — $1 million apiece over the next four years — were unanimously approved by the City Council Tuesday.
Both the Laguna Beach Art Museum and the Laguna Playhouse will receive $250,000 a year if each can match the money dollar-per-dollar, according to the agreement. Council member Bob Whalen initiated the idea, which will be funded by the city’s budget surplus if the money is available.
An encouraging nod was given to two other art organizations, the Laguna Plein Air Painters Assn. and the Laguna College of Art and Design, to also seek matching grants in the future. Council members Toni Iseman and Kelly Boyd volunteered to meet with LPAPA board members to determine the needed matching amount. Other council members are already working with LCAD trustees.
The million-dollar matching grants approved Tuesday are lighting a fire under both the museum and the playhouse to step up their game.
“Clearly we need to do something different,” museum executive director Malcolm Warner said earlier in the day. Warner, who’s been leading the museum for four years, said he doesn’t know when a grant of this size has ever been received by the museum. Warner said 30,000 people visit the museum every year. “With only 13 full-time staff, we’re punching way above our weight,” said Warner.
Having the matching funds, Warner said, will make a big job easier.
Whalen said he hopes the city’s support will inspire residents to step up as well and donate to both institutions.
Museum board chair Robert Hayden told the council that the museum was actually started with a matching grant. H.G. Heisler, namesake of Heisler Park, challenged the then-five-year-old Laguna Beach Art Assn. to raise $2,000 to buy the corner lot at 307 Cliff Dr., valued at $4,000, in June of 1923. The association raised $2,000 and an additional $20,000 to build an art gallery there designed by noted Los Angeles architect Myron Hunt, he said.
“It’s a challenge grant,” Warner said. “It calls upon us to step up and raise our game a little. We can certainly do it. And we welcome the boost that it gives us by being able to tell our patrons and perspective donors that the city is matching it dollar per dollar.”
Ann Wareham, Playhouse artistic director, said the grant presents a challenge not only to survive, but to thrive. “It’s the challenge you want to have as an organization,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “At 95 years, both the museum and the Playhouse are valuable, precious institutions to this town. They wanted to give us a vote of confidence.”
Wareham suggested that bringing the museum and Playhouse up to par might earn them a place on the city’s marquee. The welcome road signs at the city’s borders now say “Home of the Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters.”
Both institutions will first use the money for stop-gap measures. “We’ve weathered some pretty tough times,” said Wareham, not the slightest being weather-related. Playhouse officials were scrambling to find buckets one opening night to catch rain dripping from the ceiling. “That’s not where you want to put your energy,” Wareham said. “This is our gem to the ocean.”
Top on the museum’s list of must-do’s is the heating and air-conditioning system, said Warner, which he described as barely adequate. It wasn’t adequate enough, he said, for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to loan a Robert Henri painting too fragile to withstand fluctuating temperatures. The request was denied.
Wareham hopes the grant will not only improve the Playhouse itself but will bolster staff morale. “We’ve been making lemonade out of lemons,” she said. “It’s hard on staff to be constantly pushing what we do on the stage and do it well.” The money, she said, will be used to complete deferred improvement projects, which will support the Playhouse’s ability to produce top-rated performances. “We will be happily more robust in how we take our message out into the community,” she said.
The theater is temporarily without an executive director or development director, whose primary responsibility is to raise money, noted Wareham. “We’re taking great care to bring someone on board to partner with our board to raise those funds,” she said.
Whalen’s brainchild started rolling after discussions with Joe Hanauer and Paul Sinderela, co-chairmen of the Playhouse board, about the theater’s dilapidated condition.
The money will be distributed at $250,000 a year and can be used only for facility improvements and expansion, according to the grant stipulations. The money cannot be used to fund programs, hire personnel, purchase property or for routine maintenance and repairs or fundraising, among other restrictions.
“We’re very comfortable with the restrictions,” said Hanauer, who owns commercial property in town. “We’ve been planning for the last year how we would attack remodeling and repairs to the aging building if and when we had funding.” One of the first remodels to tackle, he said, will be the women’s restrooms.
The grants were preliminarily approved in January when the council’s mid-year budget update revealed a $4.8 million surplus from higher-than-expected revenue and conservative spending in the year ending June 30, 2015.
If either arts institution has not raised the necessary amount by the end of the calendar year, an automatic six-month extension is granted to June 30. After that, the grant is cancelled. If more is raised, the excess amount can be carried forward. As a top donor, the city also expects perks: use of their facilities occasionally for city-sanctioned events at little or no cost, the agreement says.
This year’s installment for both institutions, $500,000, has already been set aside in the city budget. All $2 million of the grant money must be spent or appropriated by December 2020.