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Into the Mix : Some Arts Groups Embrace Vietnamese; Others Barely Recognize Them

ARTS IN LITTLE SAIGON. A culture transplanted. Last in a series.


For the county's art establishment, reaching out to Vietnamese Americans is not as simple as just mailing slick season ticket brochures to Little Saigon.

Building a relationship with the growing and increasingly influential community is a sometimes tentative process of mutual exploration. For some mainstream arts groups, that process has yet to germinate; for others, especially the Pacific Symphony, a relationship is starting to bloom.

The issues of recognizing the Vietnamese Americans and of integrating them into the mainstream take on a special focus this year: 1995 is the 20th anniversary of the first Vietnam War refugees' arrival in Orange County--which now includes more Vietnamese than any place outside of Vietnam itself.

Many 20-year observances are planned, and many of them involve the arts, a reflection of vibrant activity within Little Saigon. Traditional music ensembles exist alongside groups that pump out Vietnamese rock and rap. There is Vietnamese-language radio and television. Three of the five largest Vietnamese publishing companies in the United States are based in Orange County, and paintings by local Vietnamese Americans tour in prominent exhibitions.

But all of this exists in what is almost a parallel world to the rest of Orange County, largely unknown to those who aren't Vietnamese.

Still, the Pacific Symphony will participate in the local centerpiece of Project 20, the most extensive of the anniversary observances: A symphonic suite called "1975," composed by Khoa Le who now lives in Orange, will premiere in Costa Mesa on June 3.

And next month, the orchestra will present a commemorative work of its own. An untitled work by Elliot Goldenthal, commissioned to reflect on the human experience of the Vietnam War, is to premiere April 26--three days shy of 20 years after Saigon fell to the Communists. As part of his research for the piece, Goldenthal held a workshop that brought orchestra members together with local Vietnamese American musicians. It was unprecedented.

The commission is a risk for the orchestra. If handled insensitively, the hourlong symphonic/chorale work--the most substantial music commission in Orange County history--"could wind up offending everyone" from veterans to refugees, notes Louis G. Spisto, the orchestra's executive director.

So why do it? "We feel a responsibility to embrace as many communities within Orange County as possible," Spisto explained during a press conference at which Project 20 was announced.

Outreach, as it is called in the nonprofit arts community, is critical to an organization's survival, be it an orchestra, a museum, a dance troupe or a theater company. For one thing, these organizations are struggling perhaps as never before to balance their budgets in an era of diminishing private and public support. From a financial standpoint alone, unless they offer programming that appeals to an increasingly diverse population, they won't sell tickets. And such public funding that survives is contingent on multicultural programming that reflects the ethnic mix of taxpayers generating the money for grants.

Meanwhile, California's schools represent a broader ethnic array than any in the nation. If arts groups don't expose all young people to the arts, they risk losing future audiences.

Every arts institution in the county has at least one outreach program targeting elementary through high schools. The Laguna Art Museum's programs have featured a Vietnamese War-related assemblage by Chi Le of Westminster that has been shown at the museum and acquired for its permanent collection. However, the Laguna has focused its major outreach efforts on Latinos, who make up the county's second largest population group (after whites). A large exhibit of prints by Chicano artists opened last week.

The Newport Harbor Art Museum in Newport Beach invited two local Vietnamese poets to read their work last year in conjunction with "Youth in Asia," an exhibit by American Terry Allen that dealt with the Vietnam War. But the museum has done little beyond that.

"It's not a pressing agenda," not as important as organizing retrospectives of established artists, says its chief curator, Bruce Guenther.

On the other hand, the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana plans to stage an exhibit of local Vietnamese art. No date has been set, but a grant proposal has been sent to a "major arts funding organization," and a curator is being sought, according to museum director Peter C. Keller.

Attention to Pacific Rim culture is part of the Bowers mandate and helps make it unique in the county, says Keller, so "it would be remiss of us not to present such an exhibit, especially because the Vietnamese are an important community in Orange County."

Few performing arts group have come up with such large-scale projects as the Pacific's symphony commission, though all the major groups at least have taken steps toward showcasing Vietnamese culture.


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