LOS ANGELES — Recent controversies in Costa Mesa over artistic freedom were aggravated by the lack of a countywide arts organization, David Emmes, producing-artistic director of Costa Mesa's Tony award-winning South Coast Repertory theater, said here Saturday.
The absence of a countywide arts council, which would give a stronger, unified voice to the local arts community, contributed to "a lack of understanding" among Costa Mesa city officials last July when they approved hotly contested arts-grant restrictions, said Emmes, speaking on a panel at a meeting of arts leaders from throughout the state.
"Looking ahead, we must be very active in communicating on a local level about the importance of the arts and why we do what we do," Emmes said.
Saturday's panel, titled "The Fight for Freedom of Expression," was held at the Biltmore Hotel as part of the annual convention of the California Confederation of the Arts, the state's largest arts advocacy organization. About 100 people attended the discussion, opened by choreographer Bella Lewitzky, head of the Los Angeles modern dance company that bears her name.
"The battle (for freedom of expression) is never won and one that may never rest," said Lewitzky, who has sued the National Endowment for the Arts over its requirement that recipients of 1990 grants pledge not to create or present obscene artworks.
SCR, a recipient of Costa Mesa arts subsidies, was pushed into the nationwide furor over public arts funding when a Costa Mesa resident charged that the troupe had used city funds to distribute flyers urging support of the NEA, under fire by conservatives for funding allegedly obscene or sacrilegious works.
The Costa Mesa City Council found that no city money had been used to produce the flyers, but nonetheless imposed grant restrictions, forbidding the use of city money for obscene works, as well as for religious or political activity. Arts experts say they are unaware of any other city or county in the country that enacted similar restrictions as a result of the NEA debate. The national controversy over arts funding is expected to continue in light of recent legislation that bars NEA support of work that violates "general standards of decency."
Hoping to strengthen and centralize the local arts community, Orange County arts officials have been working to form a countywide arts council. They suffered a setback earlier this year after the Orange County Board of Supervisors virtually shut the door on any substantial funding for such an alliance.
A somewhat similar coalition in Long Beach, the 8-year-old Public Corporation for the Arts, has long been active in the sort of public awareness efforts that Emmes advocated through an Orange County arts council, said panelist Cynthia MacMullin, director of the FHP Hippodrome Gallery in Long Beach.
"We've solicited the support of the (Long Beach) City Council and it has been very supportive in the NEA battle," MacMullin said.
Panelist Bruce W. Davis said that the Arts Democratic Club in San Francisco has gained local politicians' support. In the last election, four out of five supervisors endorsed by the club were elected, said Davis, club vice president, as were all of the three school board members. In addition, "every single person up for judicial posts and the college board had to come for our endorsement," he said.
"The power of the arts to move society, to move people, frightens politicians--it scares them," Davis said.
Panelist Jane Sharp, a board member of the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse, admitted that playhouse officials had been "extremely naive" to stage the satiric play "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All To You" shortly after imposition of the Costa Mesa arts-grant restrictions.
Christopher Durang's caustic satire, labeled as "anti-Christian bigotry" by local residents, reignited the city's arts-funding flap and offered the first test of the new Costa Mesa grant policy. The playhouse, a community theater run mostly by volunteers, also receives city funding.
"It's no pleasure to admit we were stupid enough not to know we'd cause such a ruckus," Sharp said after the meeting. She stressed that she spoke as an individual, not for the playhouse board which did not have enough time to prepare a statement because it had been invited only Tuesday to speak.