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ARTISTIC LEAP : The Ojai Center for the Arts as long a top attraction, but the years have taken a toll. A proposed renovation could put it back in the limelight.

February 09, 1995|LEO SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Let's go back a few years--to June 4, 1936.

We're in Ojai, population about 1,500. Another 5,500 people are located throughout the Ojai Valley.

There are five independently run arts organizations in Ojai, all struggling financially and perpetually searching for facilities to call home. Dr. Charles Butler, a non-practicing physician in town, is a member of three of these amateur groups--the community chorus, theater and orchestra.

Butler, a respected financier, has a revolutionary proposal to make to his fellow arts patrons: Why not have all five groups band together and call themselves "The Community Art Center of the Ojai Valley?" Why not have all the groups live under one roof and promote the arts as a whole, rather than individually?

The idea receives a virtual standing ovation.

Singers, actors, musicians, members of the English Folk Dance Society and visual artists all welcome the idea. Within several days they are busy looking for a location to house the new arts collective. They form committees to work on fund raising, writing of bylaws, incorporation and other key ingredients of a nonprofit organization.

On July 5, 1939, ground is broken at 113 S. Montgomery St. More than 500 people have donated labor and money--about $15,000--to the cause. On Nov. 5, 1939, the final touches are completed, and the Ojai Community Art Center is up and running.

CULTURAL NEEDS

Now, let's return to the present. Almost 60 years have passed since Butler presented his idea. Ojai's population has grown to about 8,000. There are approximately 29,000 people in the entire valley.

The facility, now called Ojai Center for the Arts, is still located at 113 S. Montgomery, in a cozy rustic setting adjacent to Libbey Park.

Though a literary group has replaced the chorus, the facility still houses five artistic branches. It is considered the oldest continually operating art center in California, and is unique in that it caters equally to several amateur art forms.

The center still fulfills many cultural needs. There are theatrical productions, dance classes in swing, international, jazz and folk, as well as yoga, acrylic printing, Oriental brush painting, children's acting and exercise. Groups meet for life drawing and poetry workshops. Joan Raymund, the head of the poetry branch, coordinates the annual publication of the literary book "Rivertalk."

Everything is just as it was at the beginning, right? Not exactly.

What was once a central gathering place of a small community is now a somewhat drab, out-of-date space that is just one of many attractions that draws the attention of residents and visitors.

Not only do some residents take the place for granted, or forget about it altogether, but competition for attention and the ever-important arts dollar comes from cities as far away and as culturally abundant as Santa Barbara and Thousand Oaks.

This is compounded by a number of other factors: Ojai is a small community with a large cultural profile--many of its residents are artists and actors whose fame extends well beyond the Ojai Valley. Many of them care as much, or more, about the health and well-being of big-money, big-name places such as the Kennedy Center and the Los Angeles Music Center, than they do about the comparatively small Ojai Art Center, as it is commonly called.

As they head into their sixth decade, the biggest challenge facing the members of the little arts facility is to raise the money needed to bring it up to speed with today's arts world--by expanding it and dusting it off a bit, in a way supporters say it needs to survive and thrive.

"There's been talk for lots of years that the Art Center needs to take a leap. It's been the same for so long," said Teri Mettala, one of two paid center employees. Mettala runs the day-to-day operations, while a volunteer board of trustees handles the rest of the decision making.

"The Art Center is kind of tucked away underneath the trees. We need to stick our head out and show people we're here," she said. "We need to do something to spruce ourselves up a bit." To raise the necessary funds for such sprucing, the folks at the Art Center must appeal to a semi-interested community for help. And renovation does not come cheaply. The estimated xxxcost of a recently proposed project is $50,000 to break ground, $80,000 to $120,000 to complete.

The center is supported by private donations, the annual dues of its 314 members, income from events, a portion of class fees and rental fees charged to outside organizations. It receives no public funding.

Taking all that into consideration, the project may be easier conceived than realized.

"Hell, we've never raised that much money for anything," said artist Bert Collins of the fund-raising committee trio. "But any business needs to move ahead or it moves back. . . . We are really trying to keep up with today's needs, trying to stay a vital part of the community.

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