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Art Rightly Stole the Show

By Michelle McCormick
By Michelle McCormick

If the Festival of Arts’ ribbon cutting and preview party was meant to be a celebration of our artists and their work, it was a success. If it was to be a full-on communal embrace of the newly renovated venue, it was not, at least not yet.

When I dropped into the grounds a week prior to the opening on Monday, July 3, the stage was almost set. Artists were painting exhibit booth walls, a lone electrician was atop a ladder in the entertainment area while the dance floor and dining tables waited in the wings for their cue. The bathrooms were close but so far away, yearning for more fixtures. Would they finish on time? Would patrons adjust to this new layout that seemed to place artists in center court?

Ribbon cutting at Festival of Arts
Ribbon cutting at Festival of Arts

Gone is the central picnic entertainment area, which functioned like a town square, a communal gathering place bringing together fine art, music, food, wine, and dance. I imagined upraised voices of town traditionalists and environmentalists asking, “Where is the green? Is that astro-turf? Did you take down the trees? Really, steel and stretch canvas replacing natural tree canopies? Laguna lifers often carry a heavy rep for not liking change.

Development here takes place amid waves of robust civic involvement, alternating between resistance and support depending on the subject. Yet, it appeared in this case that Festival of Arts’ board members accomplished a Herculean effort in creating a hip, contemporary venue worthy of featuring exquisite art.

These were my reflections as I witnessed city officials, architects and board members stand with Fred Sattler as he cut that bright red ribbon. Throwing high-fives my way, board members Tom Lamb and Pat Kollenda were clearly thrilled saying that the renovation heralds a premier venue for professionally showcasing fine art. Friend and city Arts Commission member Michael Ervin agreed.

Art conservationist and local Susan Brown was hopeful that the new canopies would better protect the art from rain. Vicki Lamb looks forward to a season resting on solid ground after years of sliding out of a gallery chair given the site’s previous slope.

There was a massive love fest at Michael Obermeyer’s, Paul Bond’s, and Nancy Holly’s booths, and Sandra Jones Campbell greeted guests with big hugs while enjoying the dynamic created by the location of her booth. Sandra is one of the first artists that visitors encounter. Karin Worden apparently liked her location, too, but she was more focused on imagining how quickly she could get back to the studio to create more jewelry. She sold out early last year.

The grande design worked. Wider pathways allowed for better crowd flow. Guests moved naturally through the galleries, not distracted by the pull of music or food. I did not miss the familiar feeling at past preview parties of being packed like sardines under the heat of gallery lights amid summer humidity unable to see the art through the wall of bodies. This night, looking up at any point revealed green hillsides. The canopy design allowed natural light through so that the art popped with color and texture. Surveying the surrounding environment by the entertainment area, I noticed a Frank Lloyd Wright-like integration of the sandstone festival walls with Laguna Canyon’s majestic sandstone cliffs and caves. Mature pine trees provided a natural backdrop to the stage. Laguna Dance’s Karen Wilson and I stood above the entertainment area imagining how the venue might best serve Laguna Dance audiences and dancers in their upcoming performances.

There was also a wait-and-see ambivalence expressed. Plein air artist Greg LaRock and Sawdust Festival artist Dave Nelson both suggested that it might take some time to allow feedback from artists to see how it all works. They reminded me that the walls are temporary. I appreciated this fluid perspective because at times, given my spatial challenges, I felt like I was navigating a maze that might take time to sort out. I lost my people three times. During the search, I ran into ocean activist Rich German. Together we swam through waves of people to locate our pods. I never found Michael Situ’s booth or made it onto the dance floor. Not dancing at the preview party was a first. At the end of the night while leaving the restrooms, I admit that it felt daunting to trek over there. In the past I enjoyed the ease of moving effortlessly between art, music, dancing and dining. The new grid seemed to generate separate experiences that compelled me to choose. I chose art. Dinner and dancing would have to wait.

As a psychologist and community builder, I’m all about connecting. My concern is that while the new design focuses the art, Laguna may have lost a communal space in the old central green which became our makeshift town square. And yet, Monday night I clearly witnessed artists and residents finding what they have come to count on at each year’s preview party … meeting and greeting friends, bringing in the summer with a festive party, all while supporting the art they love, the spirit of art that defines Laguna’s raison d’ être.

The author is a psychologist, writer and devoted art patron living in Laguna Beach. She can be reached at [email protected]

 

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