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The Changing Face of the Arts : The artist's relationship to society is less like the agony and the ecstasy and more like the marketing and the minutiae.


We all know the stereotypes. Charlton Heston as the raging Michelangelo, sweating bullets to complete the Sistine Chapel ceiling in defiance of church bureaucrats. Kirk Douglas as the passionate, tragic Vincent van Gogh, relentlessly contemptuous of social convention. Very glamorous and dramatic portraits, sketched in high-contrast oppositions.

But in the face of current economic realities, the artist's relationship to society is more complex and interdependent--less like the agony and the ecstasy and more like the marketing and the minutiae.

Art is a business. And like every sector of the business community, it has been left by the current recession in economic disarray. Nonprofit arts organizations across the nation are closing their doors at an alarming rate.

In 1990, a New York-based survey titled "The Quiet Crisis in the Arts" concluded: "Those who assert that the arts need to be more like business and government should take note that the arts have achieved this rather dubious goal--we are deeply and dangerously in debt."

The nationwide crisis in the arts is clearly reflected in the fortunes of arts groups in Ventura County. From large institutions like the Ventura County Symphony to humble community theaters and dance troupes, everyone is feeling the pinch.

A local survey of arts organizations reveals a combination of frustration and resourcefulness in response to the recession. Many groups have had to use extraordinary ingenuity to stay afloat. For others, time may be running out.

Symphony in Pain

This has been a particularly hard year for the area's flagship arts organization, the Ventura County Symphony, according to executive director Karine Beesley.

"Our ticket sales have hit the lowest point they've ever been," she said recently. "For example, the 'Nutcracker' ballet that we do every December with the Channel Islands Ballet Company has been on a steady uphill climb since we started it back in 1981. But in 1991 we barely broke even--and we'd never done that before."

In response, the symphony is changing its tune with the arrival of its new music director, Boris Brott. Brott and Beesley are enthusiastic about the changes they're making to the entire symphony experience, including acoustical and aesthetic improvements to the Oxnard Civic Auditorium and the incorporation of multimedia video, theater and dance elements into their concerts.

"This opens the door to collaboration with other arts groups in the community," said Beesley.

But for groups with fewer resources than the symphony, the options are limited. Just last month, the Cabrillo Music Theatre canceled its scheduled production of "Annie" and suspended operations for a massive regrouping and fund-raising effort. The outcome will reportedly determine whether the group will continue.

Last May, the Channel Islands Ballet faced a similar crisis, according to Ishmael Messer, president of the company's board of directors.

"We were ready to give up and donate our remaining funds to some other company," Messer said, "but we found a new approach to possibly increase our revenue." The company is now affiliated with the newly formed Ballet Ventura School, where internationally acclaimed Romanian dancer Clarissa Boeriu will serve as head instructor as well as artistic director for the performances.

Other organizations have had to implement a variety of downsizing measures. The Plexus Dance Company, for example, is on self-imposed hiatus but continues to operate as a new smaller-scale ensemble, Moda Viv, in works designed for gallery-sized performance spaces.

Pam Pilkenton, artistic director for Plexus, is a former Broadway dancer who said she loves living in Ventura County but is fast approaching the point where she'd consider leaving.

"I want to make a living from practicing my craft," she said. "There comes a point where you have to maintain your integrity--like in a bad marriage, you may just have to go."

Still, she hangs on. As with so many artists in the area, there's a bond of loyalty that keeps her here, even though other communities offer more arts support.

"The annual operating budget for a typical Ventura arts organization is only $20,000," said Sonia Tower of the City Parks and Recreation Department. "That has to cover staffing, advertising, printing programs, hiring performers, Xeroxing--you name it."

Ironically, having to make do with this perpetual lack of funds may be one reason community arts groups have been so resilient in the face of the recession. Better-funded organizations are vulnerable to large-scale cutbacks from the grant agencies and donors on which most Ventura County arts groups have never relied.

"You can't lose what you never had," said Tower.

Bradon McKinley, president of the board for the Plaza Players theater company, concurred. "We've been on a shoestring for 46 years so it's no different now," he said with a laugh. "We always need money."

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