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Centerpiece : The Arts Wars : Even with growth and ambition all around, county arts groups face a tough fight for money and audiences.


Ventura County, experts agree, has the population, the affluence, the talent and the cultural appetite to support a thriving arts community. So why doesn't it?

Unfortunately for local arts leaders, this county's cultural audience is instead helping support three distinct arts communities, two of them beyond county lines. Though local groups have been working hard to cultivate audiences and patrons, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara continue to draw thousands of culture consumers, and their dollars, out of this county.

"We have sharks from the north and sharks from the south," said Bill Benson, executive director of the Cabrillo Music Theatre, at a meeting of local arts managers last week.

Few local leaders are that blunt in their responses--and some argue that the county's neighbors do it more good than harm--but all agree that geography makes Ventura County a uniquely delicate, and underdeveloped, market for the arts.

"In a way, having Los Angeles and Santa Barbara at both ends has been a crutch and has impeded our moving ahead earlier," said Richard Wittenberg, Ventura County's chief administrative officer. "It's not that far to drive. Perhaps if we were more isolated, we'd be pressed harder to do what is appropriate."

But county officials, authorities statewide say, have done little. Ventura County's arts groups, local and state records show, get substantially less government money than their counterparts elsewhere. Officials say they can't afford any more.

The Landscape

In many ways, this county stands poised for cultural growth. The population is up to 669,000--not much smaller than San Francisco's--and growing. A pair of cultural plans are in the works, one in the city of Ventura and one countywide, to assess strengths and weaknesses.

Though the area lacks a public university and the prospect of one has prompted land-use controversies, California State University officials hope to begin construction of a Ventura County campus before 1994.

And in Thousand Oaks, city officials are pushing ahead with a $63-million civic center and arts auditorium, with architectural plans due for final approval in coming weeks.

"I'm very encouraged by the development of quality and diversity of arts opportunities in the last years in Ventura County," said Maureen Davidson, executive director of the Ventura Arts Council.

Davidson's 8-year-old group is one of several growing local arts organizations. It displays art in its nonprofit Momentum Gallery, sponsors educational programs, produces special events and manages arts grants for the city of Ventura.

Elsewhere, the 29-year-old Ventura County Symphony's budget is growing steadily. The Cabrillo Music Theatre in Oxnard is hoping to double its 12-performance schedule in the coming year. Armando Garcia of Santa Paula and Javier M. Gomez of Oxnard each won $9,500 grants last year for drama projects through the state's Artists in Residence program. El Concilio, a Latino-advocacy group in Oxnard, sponsors cultural presentations under the name "Cafe Inlakech."

But when it comes to culture customers, Ventura County gives much more than it gets. The Ventura County Museum of History and Art counts 40 Santa Barbarans among its 1,800 members. The Santa Paula Theatre Center estimates that 6% of its audiences comes from beyond county lines. The Ventura County Symphony doesn't count out-of-town customers, because their numbers are so small.

There are exceptions, however. The Ventura Theatre's pop music concerts regularly lure large audiences south from Santa Barbara. And the Ojai Festival, a classical-music event often billed as this county's foremost cultural occasion, traces 60% of its audience to Los Angeles and 8% to Santa Barbara. But the three-day festival's total audience last year amounted to just under 3,500.

Betwixt and Between

Through all the years that local groups have been struggling to overcome this area's image as a largely artless blue-collar bedroom community, Los Angeles has been establishing itself as an international cultural capital and drawing patrons from far-flung suburbs.

In the offices of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, spokesman Stephen Belth estimates that Thousand Oaks alone includes 350 subscription holders who venture at least three times a season to either the Hollywood Bowl or the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. At the Los Angeles Theatre Center, spokeswoman Dawn Setzer counts 450 subscribers from Thousand Oaks and 369 from Ventura and Simi Valley--more than 5% of the theater center's subscriber list.

"Even though we've been growing," said Karine Beesley, executive director of the Ventura County Symphony, "people here still think Los Angeles is where they want to spend their cultural dollars."

But many of those dollars are migrating north as well. For years now, Santa Barbara's cultural organizations have been trading on their city's reputation for wealth and sophistication, and staking their own claims on Ventura County audiences.

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