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L.B. Art Scene: New Life in the Shadow of L.A.

June 16, 1985|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — Wim Griffith was born and raised here.

This is where he went to high school, took his first steps toward adulthood and began developing the talents that were to illuminate his life.

Yet when it came to establishing a career, he moved to Los Angeles.

"If you're an artist living in Long Beach . . . there's no way to get going," said Griffith, 36, who makes his living as a muralist.

Three years ago, he returned to live and work in the city of his birth. "I like Long Beach," Griffith said. "I love the ocean, the people, the community, the . . . feel of the place."

But his work has yet to be shown locally. Although it graces walls from Santa Monica to Riverside and a gallery on Melrose Avenue, the artist said, most Long Beach residents have never seen it.

"I wish I could say that I'm exhibiting here," he said, "but I'm not. It's hard enough (to get a show) in a big city. It should be easier in your hometown, yet it's more difficult."

Christopher Schumaker, another Long Beach artist who moved away only to return later for personal reasons, has a different feeling altogether about the place where he lives and works. "I'm trying to publicly disassociate myself from Long Beach," said Schumaker, 35, a sculptor and teacher at Long Beach City College.

'Gateway Is L.A.'

Though his work has been shown in Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco, he said, he has chosen not to exhibit his sculptures in Long Beach.

"I just don't think Long Beach can offer the visibility I need at this point in my career," he said. "I've opened the gateway and the gateway is L.A."

Griffith and Schumaker represent different reactions to the same issue.

As many as 400 working artists reside in Long Beach, according to Mary Sullivan, visual arts coordinator for the city's Public Corp. for the Arts. And all of them, she said, eventually must come to terms with the same fact: They live in an area traditionally considered an artistic backwater.

"It's slowly getting better," said Sullivan. "But it's very difficult and we're a little behind the times."

Specifically, she said, though works by Long Beach artists are generally as good as those being produced anywhere else, local artists suffer from a lack of opportunities for exhibition and a lack of serious attention from elsewhere when they do manage to exhibit.

'Iowa' Image

Local artists and art lovers blame everything from the city's traditional image as "Iowa-By-The-Sea" to its proximity to Los Angeles, which, they say, has prevented the development of a separate and distinct artistic climate like that in Orange County.

And they also point to the fact that serious critics and collectors who are based in Los Angeles seem to consider Long Beach too distant for easy access.

"If they have thousands of artists within walking distance of them, why should they get on the freeway?" said Norm Looney, a painter who lives and works in a large studio on Ocean Boulevard.

Schumaker said the local market for serious art is relatively thin, and he attributes that at least in part to the "yuppie mentality" of the city's would-be art collectors. "There's lots of money here, but art collecting isn't something these people are into," he said.

Those who do collect art, he said, still tend to buy in Los Angeles. "In Long Beach people enjoy going to an opening and clinking a glass of wine at best, but they aren't interested in really supporting the art community," Schumaker said.

Added Tim Isham, an abstract painter who has been in town for six years but said that almost all of his sales are in Los Angeles: "The people who have the ability to finally make an art market exist in Long Beach . . . aren't properly educated or don't seem to have the taste."

But things are changing, some artists and patrons say.

Shakti Gallery

In 1980, Dixie Swift opened what she said was the city's only contemporary art gallery at the time, the 900-square-foot Shakti Gallery.

"It became a catalyst for the energy to begin growing again among local artists who had remained obscure," said Swift, now community arts coordinator for the city. Not since a brief period in the 1960s, she said, had such excitement existed among Long Beach artists.

Along the way, however, she made a couple of decisions that by 1984 forced the gallery to close. One was to move into a larger building, which greatly increased her overhead. The other was to exhibit almost exclusively the work of Long Beach artists.

"If I'd had the ability to bring in name artists from outside Long Beach I might have survived," Swift said.

She believes she helped plant the seed, however, for what was to come next.

Seven months ago Mark Moore, director and owner of the 3,500-square-foot Works Gallery, moved his operation from Newport Beach to Long Beach. He said he moved his gallery on Broadway in Belmont Heights because, he said, "we felt we could draw a more sophisticated audience here."

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