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A Curator's Declaration of Independence : Josine Ianco-Starrels works to give a unified vision to the visual arts of L.A. Festival

September 02, 1990|WILLIAM WILSON

The 1990 Los Angeles Festival is barely under way and already the word on the street is that its visual arts component was something of an afterthought and a stepchild, scattered and underfunded, even though curated by the respected Josine Ianco-Starrels.

Noted Los Angeles dealer Rosumund Felsen commented: "I got this ridiculous, illegible (festival)) brochure in the mail and assumed it was all about the performing arts. I don't like the idea of the (visual) arts stuck in there as a token kind of thing."

Artist Peter Alexander praised the performing arts aspect of the festival while regretting the fate of the visual arts. "It's an incredible idea to tap all the ignored resources that exist here, but why include the visual arts in a minor way as a gesture? There are too many shows out there anyway."

None of the criticism was directed to Ianco-Starrels, who has spent a quarter-century concentrating on Southland art. County Museum of Art senior curator Maurice Tuchman said, "Josine is a professional. If she is involved the results will be of interest."

Ianco-Starrels thinks the visual arts are worth including, even in a secondary way, "because they exist. I admire (festival director) Peter Sellars and the spirit of the theater people. He said, 'We're not out for success because we know what that looks like. It looks like Burger King. We're going to do this this way because it needs to be done, not because it's going to be perfect.' Those are my sentiments exactly."

Festival executive director Judith Luther responded to critics by pointing out that the festival has had a full-time arts coordinator from the beginning in Mary Hamilton, and that the visual arts kitty rose to some 4% of the total $5 million budget--from an initial $50,000 to about $200,000--as the general budget increased.

"I hope in future years we can do more." Luther said. "Los Angeles has been too long perceived as a place just for the performing arts. We want to do more to assert the importance of the (visual) arts and literature here."

The festival picked an appropriate booster in Ianco-Starrels, whose career started at the long-defunct Lytton Center for the Visual Arts in 1961. She moved on to teach and run the Gallery at Cal State L.A. and then the Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park. She recently resigned as chief curator of the Long Beach Museum of Art.

She specialized in art and artists of the overlooked and undervalued sort, from ignored avant-gardists to black women and puppet collectors. Now, she is at it again as an independent curator jiggering together an ethnic hors d'oeuvre tray of festival exhibitions centered on the Pacific Rim. A couple of dozen shows on the official list include nine devoted to Asian and Asian-American art, six to the Latino sensibility, two to Afro-Americans, two to L.A. artists and one each to women, AIDS victims and artists from Seattle and New Zealand.

Ianco-Starrels lives in a rustic house tucked away on one of the myriad lanes that wind off Laurel Canyon Boulevard. She looks a trifle care-worn and admits to nervousness about talking to the press even though she compiled The Times' art news column for a number of years. She then goes on to make a characteristically enthusiastic case for the shows.

"Judith Luther called last November and asked me to work as a consultant. I tried to find galleries that would be empty at the time of the festival and came up with places like the Woman's Building, Angel's Gate Cultural Center and the Long Beach Art Assn. Almost none of them have any money. Then I asked artists about their plans and tried to match them to galleries. Some festival exhibitions are shows that were already planned that happen to fit the festival's theme such as UCLA's Latino show, 'CARA.'

"Our part of the festival isn't confined to traditional gallery shows. Every RTD car and Blue Line trolley will show parts of a series of bus cards by 13 artists. The Patrick Media billboard company offered three big outdoor boards, (which) will carry works by John Baldessari, Sandra Rowe and Erica Rothenberg.

"The most expensive single project was $20,000 to outfit two large trucks as galleries that will visit public school yards during their after-school programs. We picked schools with the lowest testing scores because they have absolutely no enrichment programs.

"This festival shines a different spotlight. It's not on the area of high art but on different systems people invented to make sense out of life. It's about getting back to manifestations of art in the lives of everyday people--what UCLA calls 'cultural history.'

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