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THE ARTS : L.A. in Their Rear-View Mirrors : Local avant-garde performers are finding that their best act may be to pack a suitcase. Despite L.A.'s prominence as a creative crucible, even top artists say the best audiences (and best paychecks) are on the road

January 16, 1994|JAN BRESLAUER | Jan Breslauer is a frequent contributor to Calendar

In "SOME GOLDEN STATES," performance artist Tim Miller pretends to have sex with a huge plywood cutout of his beloved California. He spins yarns about gas station epiphanies, love on the beach and the hometown he and Richard Nixon shared, Whittier.

In "STRETCH MARKS," Miller imagines a fiery plane crash on a mythical, magical Venice Beach not unlike the real Venice Beach near his home. And in "SEX/LOVE/STORIES," he recounts a weeklong vigil held to demand that an AIDS ward be built at County-USC Medical Center.

These works were made in Los Angeles. They're about L.A. And they're part of a body of work that made this artist-activist a focus of national attention in 1990 as one of the NEA Four, the group that sued the National Endowment for the Arts for rescinding its grants. But if you want to see them in L.A., the chances are, well, few and far between.

Even though Miller has been living here since 1986--and co-founded Highways performance space, where he is still artistic director, in 1989--he has spent much of the time since then as an L.A. artist in absentia.

Last year, Miller spent more than 30 weeks living out of a suitcase, careening between such far-flung spots as Winnipeg, Canada, and Sydney, Australia, in the space of a few days, only to turn around and do a gig in, say, Glasgow, Scotland, or Louisville, Ky., before heading home just long enough to pat his dog, then shipping out once again. He spent more time in Britain than in L.A. last fall. And when Miller premieres a new work at Highways next month, it will mark his first local run in two years.

"There's so much work on the road and it generally pays better," he says. "But if it were possible, I would like to strike more of a balance. I think L.A. is losing some major resources in terms of what might be contributed to the life of the city."

At least Miller can't weigh in with that old saw about not being able to get arrested in his hometown. He's been booked for arrest at ACT UP and NEA censorship demonstrations plenty of times. But the lengths to which he and other L.A. artists must go to support their careers is another matter.

First and foremost is the matter of where they can perform. On one end of the scale, dance, music, performance and interdisciplinary art are seen in Los Angeles at such venues as the Music Center, the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts, the new Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center and an array of university venues from Occidental to El Camino to Cal State L.A., which is completing a new complex of facilities.

For emerging artists and others, the best bets are Highways, which is the busiest, and Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. There are also several part-time spaces that occasionally present such work.

But that's actually a pretty limited map for such a big city.

"We're lacking a middle range to fill that gap between LACE and Highways and UCLA," says Performance Exchange's Deborah Oliver, an L.A.-based booking agent and artist, referring primarily to venues for dance, performance and interdisciplinary work. "Where's that 400-seat hall? That's hard in terms of career development for artists. They have to get out of town (to work), and some don't come back."

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The problem applies to theater as well. While many of the major performing arts venues present a limited amount of theater--and some small theaters such as the Fountain also present dance--theater is divided between a few large producers such as the Taper, South Coast Rep and the Pasadena Playhouse and the many 99-or-less houses that dot the city.

The overwhelming majority of the small theaters now function as full- or part-time rental facilities. And the larger Hollywood theaters such as the Pantages--like the Wiltern and a few other venues for dance and performance--charge rental fees that are usually too steep for all but touring companies.

Perhaps more important than the holes in the venue network, though, may be that through the 1980s many presenters held to a longstanding bias against hometown artists.

In 1989, the National Task Force on Presenting and Touring the Performing Arts put it this way in a report titled "An American Dialogue": "Despite the bond of local artists to community, a bias often permeates the institutional attitude toward them--as if, at home, they are somehow less creative, less worthy, less professional." But, the influential and controversial report concluded, "local artists represent a resource that our field cannot afford to squander."

Fortunately, however, there have been at least two significant developments here in the years since "An American Dialogue": An increasing number of L.A. artists have garnered international attention and acclaim, and some of L.A.'s key presenters have made it a point to look homeward.

Performance art in particular, which has important roots in the feminist art movement that was centered here during the late 1970s, has become a choice export.

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