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ART / Cathy Curtis : Brea Gallery's Chief Strives Not to Incite but to Reflect 'Whatever the City Wants'

City-staffed and city-funded, community art centers are obliged to try to reach the broadest possible audiences with their exhibition programs. But there are several ways to serve art up to a broad public and several publics to be served. Yesterday The Times looked at the Irvine Fine Arts Center and the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton; today it examines the Brea Gallery in the Brea Civic Cultural Center, which takes a markedly different approach. Second of Two Parts.

August 08, 1988|Cathy Curtis

"We are a public service." Marie Sofi, 46-year-old coordinator of the 8-year-old Brea Gallery in the Brea Civic Cultural Center, likes to repeat that phrase.

Sofi, who is responsible to the City Council and the Brea Cultural Arts Commission, seems completely at home with the overwhelmingly traditional-oriented art shown at No. 1 Civic Center Circle--art that she says is based on "whatever the city wants." And not just the city: Sofi says people regularly come from as far afield as Lancaster in Los Angeles County and San Diego.

Visitors who fill out the detailed "patron evaluation sheets" at the reception desk are asked how they liked the gift shop ("Merchandise, Selection and Prices") before their comments are solicited on whichever aspect of the current exhibition most impressed them.

Western art and watercolor shows are popular in this spacious gallery adjacent to the Brea Mall, though historical and scientific exhibits still claim the biggest attendence--up to 10,000 visitors to each one.

The art displayed includes work by local people as well as by nationally known figures, Sofi says. "Nationally known" in this instance, however, means members of the National Watercolor Society.

Works are generally labeled with their prices, a practice not normally followed by commercial fine-art galleries and never by museums. Sofi says prices were requested by visitors on the evaluation sheets.

"We do it as discreetly as we can on the label," she adds. If artists object to the practice, prices are listed on a separate sheet available at the front desk.

Controversial subject matter is hardly at issue here. "We don't censor art here, and we have very little nude subject matter," Sofi says.

When there are nudes, "all are done in a very artistic style--you know, dramatic lighting."

Asked whether she has mounted any really challenging shows, Sofi mentions "George Montgomery: The Actor and his Art," which included movie posters and the actor's bronze sculptures, paintings and furniture.

How was that challenging? "The wide variety and diversity of the show," she replies, "in addition to his being a celebrity."

Announcements from the Brea Gallery are chatty and folksy, a world apart from the specialized brand of hype associated with contemporary art. "Viewers will be amazed at the handmade quilts by 100-year-old black American Esther Preston," reads a recent press release, "who completes these beautiful works of art in only a week's time."

Similarly, the general informational brochure mentions such details as the gallery's lighting system and trumpets what it calls "dramatic exhibition space."

This approach clearly has little in common with the portion of the contemporary art world that receives serious critical attention. But the Brea Gallery's distance from that sphere seems to be precisely the point.

Sofi stresses that visitors to the gallery "are not intimidated by the real world of art. . . . People love to bring the kids here. It's a warm atmosphere."

Looking through brochures on past exhibits, a visitor may be struck by the more forward-looking tone of shows that predated Sofi's six-year tenure.

In 1980, the gallery presented "American Images: New Works by 20 Contemporary Photographers," a show organized by Independent Curators, N.Y. that included such nationally prominent photographers as Lewis Baltz, William Eggleston, Elliott Erwitt and Richard Misrach.

Two years later, "Human Interest" included work by Gernot Kuehn, Ellen Lampert and Andree Tracy, artists who approach contemporary life with a contemporary outlook.

Why was this promising beginning abandoned?

Sofi answers: "A new focus was taken for the exhibitions--more of a community interest--(because of) our patrons' evaluations and city requests."

Nowadays, though, there is some impetus to broaden the focus again. Sandwiched between the Watercolor West exhibition and the Holiday Boutique this fall, "Second Time Around" will feature what the gallery calls "significant assemblage artists (in) a tribute to those who transform found materials into thought-provoking pieces."

Assemblage, which involves quirky juxtapositions of castoff ordinary objects, is a product of the 1950s and '60s. Much of it involves sexual references and non-mainstream attitudes toward social realities; it remains to be seen whether such pieces will be judged suitable for Brea's audience.

Sofi says the idea for the show came from "brainstorming with gallery staff." She sees it as a way of "expanding visitors' awareness," because they don't usually check "contemporary" or "mixed-media" on the evaluation sheets as their choices for future exhibits (the other possibilities on the list include ceramics, drawing, ethnic, science and historical, fibers and traditional).

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