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A Report Card to Be Proud Of : Community: The Irvine Fine Arts Center gets high marks for the progress that it's made in its first 15 years, officials say.


IRVINE — As they look back over their first 15 years, officials of the Irvine Fine Arts Center feel like bragging.

Not that they, and other members of the community, don't see room for improvement. More exhibition space would be nice. They also hope to expand the facility's public school outreach and education program.

But, they note nonetheless, the former Arts and Crafts Center has come a long way. Center supervisor Toni McDonald Pang points out that "we have been able to expand, to offer a really well-rounded program of art education courses and a really major exhibition program."

Tim Jahns, the education program coordinator, says that "overall, we've seen a 400% to 500% increase in our class enrollment and revenue" in the 10 years since he arrived.

The center has broadened the range of its hands-on instruction to include drawing and painting courses, ceramics, photography, calligraphy and jewelry. And the number of classes per quarter has nearly tripled over the past decade, to 60, Jahns says.

He recalls that when he started at the center, "we only had one adult ceramic class per quarter. Now we have an average of five. They almost always fill up, and we have to open new classes for the overflow."

Meanwhile, gallery space has grown from about 1,000 to 5,000 square feet. The center also stages shows regularly at the Irvine Market Place (through its Floating Storefront Studio) and the Irvine Civic Center.

The exhibits haven't all been praised. Indeed, unlike the new Huntington Beach Art Center--where adventuresome programming goes against the stereotype of community art centers as conservative, play-it-safe spaces appealing to the widest possible audience at every turn--the Irvine center has not been especially bold. Witness management's removal, from the current "All Media '95" group show, of a sculpture with a visible male sex organ.

Irvine center curator Dorrit Rawlins, who joined the staff 12 years ago, concedes that even her most contemporary programming hasn't been as "cutting edge" as it might have been. But "the programs we're doing are seen as progressive.

"We may not be moving as fast as people think we should be, but we're still progressing, and we have been tasteful in the way that we have tried to balance all the concerns that come into play in a community art center" that is owned, run and funded by a city.

Many local artists and artisans agree that the center has benefited them. Marlan Globerson, a photographer, is one of many who take advantage of its "open studio" policy allowing students free use of fully equipped studios for photography, ceramics, drawing, painting and other disciplines.

"Having a community place to hang out and do your work is wonderful," says Globerson, a 10-year center veteran who volunteers as an "open studio" attendant. "People come from as far as L.A. to use the facilities."

The Fine Arts Center may not act as a springboard for fine artists. The contemporary art world rarely looks to community arts centers as resources for up-and-comers. Still, through its regular "New Juice in Orange County" exhibitions, which showcase emerging local artists, and "Critiques With the Curator," in which Rawlins gives free evaluations of artists' work, the center has provided a needed service, many say.

"It's definitely helpful to emerging artists," says Nancy Mooslin, who has shown at the center. "Dorrit has always been very magnanimous about looking at art and keeping in touch with Orange County artists. She keeps herself informed about the art scene in general and the county art scene in specific."


Artist Suvan Geer praised exhibits curated by Rawlins that address local concerns and issues, including the county's homeless population and its large Vietnamese community.

"There are so few places in Orange County, or have been up until now, where curators are actively trying to create some kind of dialogue with the community," Geer says.

"I think its progress has been extraordinary in all areas," says Peggy Mears, an Irvine resident who was the center's first supervisor, from 1980 to 1986. "Dorrit Rawlins has really . . . played an important role in the further development of an arts community in Orange County by seeking out artists in the region" for exhibition.

"The programming always has been really good. It's respectable," says Michael Mudd, cultural services manager for the city of Huntington Beach and an advisory board member at the Irvine center in the late '80s and early '90s.

Still, both Mears and Mudd say they would like to see more.

Mudd thinks Irvine should have a major contemporary visual art facility equal in scope to the Irvine Barclay Theatre, which presents professional performing groups and artists from around the world in addition to local amateur troupes.

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