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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

The gallery operates on an annual budget of $55,000: About $30,000 comes from the city, with the remainder coming through gift shop revenues, art sales and proceeds from such special events as a chili cook-off that was held in conjunction with a show of Western art.

Most of the money goes for salaries and administrative costs. About $15,000 (including an extra grant of $5,000 from the Brea Foundation) is spent on exhibits.

The figure would be higher, but exhibit materials are often donated. For instance, for an oceanography exhibit that featured videotaped "underwater sea adventures," rare plant life, diving apparatus and "hands-on" materials, the gallery turned to such organizations as the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at UC San Diego, the Los Angeles Natural History Museum and the Smithsonian Institution.

The special events, such as the chili cook-off, are valued not only for the money they raise but also because of their community outreach--which is also evident in the gallery's educational approach. Each exhibition spawns a workshop dealing with themes in the show. And the part-time staff and corps of volunteers are primed to give tours to anyone who wants one.

Exhibition assistant Heidi Nickishen gave a recent visitor a thoughtful tour of the current exhibit, a show of multicultural work called "We Are Orange County" (which continues through Aug. 12). She took pains to pronounce the ethnic names correctly, offered useful tidbits of information and gently pushed for appreciation of a tame abstract work that might possibly be off-putting to someone looking only for a "pretty" sight.

"Instead of someone walking in and saying, 'Oh, that's a pretty painting,' we explain," Sofi says. "So we give 'em what we want and expand their horizons."

In that sense, the Brea Gallery is much like Irvine's and Fullerton's art centers. But education is a matter of degree and focus. "Expanding horizons" clearly means something very different at the Brea center than at the one in Irvine.

Unlike Dorrit Fitzgerald, curator of the Irvine Fine Arts Center, and Norman Lloyd, curator of the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton, Sofi lacks an academic art background and does not talk about the shows she would secretly love to do if she were granted complete freedom. In fact, her personal take on the art the center shows seems closer to that of a typical visitor than that of a curator.

But judging from enthusiastic comments on stacks and stacks of patron evaluation sheets, the public likes what it sees and could not care less that there are vast and absorbing worlds of art immensely different from what the Brea Gallery has to offer.

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