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Red Ink Is Staining City's Art

Exhibits Huntington Beach city council will examine programming and its financial commitment to center, which has been losing thousands.

April 02, 1999|ZAN DUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Faced with a $300,000-plus deficit at the Huntington Beach Art Center, city officials are drafting cost-saving measures that could reduce programs, eliminate its director and turn to more "traditional" work to boost attendance at one of Orange County's most adventuresome art venues.

In addition to $250,000 owed on the facility's construction, city officials say they used general funds to cover deficits of $28,000 for each of the last two years' operations. They also face a $40,000 shortfall this year at the center, which has won critical praise for its cutting-edge exhibits.

"We are going to have a change at the center," Hagan said. "I just don't know what the change is going to be yet."

Huntington Beach Mayor Peter M. Green wouldn't comment on any proposals without having seen them but said that eventually he would like to see the city-funded center become a private, self-supporting organization.

"They have art that elicits a lot of discussion in the community," Green said Thursday. "While I favor that, I prefer not be responsible for what they exhibit, and I don't want to limit their freedom of expression."

None of the preliminary proposals has been seen by the City Council, but council members may address the issue as early as April 19, said Ron Hagan, the city's community services director.

The 4-year-old contemporary art center in downtown Huntington Beach has earned national recognition and often held sold-out educational workshops.

"I'm stunned to hear about [proposed changes]," said Santa Ana artist Suvan Geer, who has a solo show scheduled at the venue in May. The art center has "done a wonderful job in keeping the county from looking like a provincial small town afraid of new things or challenging ideas."

The city provided about $110,000 of the center's budget this year, with remaining revenues coming from admissions, classes, store sales, fund-raisers, membership dues, lectures and other programs.

The red ink has stemmed in part from low annual exhibition attendance of 20,000 instead of a projected 60,000, Hagan said. Also, many donors have "drifted away," and a new board of trustees has failed to raise more than $40,000, Hagan said.

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According to working documents obtained by The Times, the proposal calling for more traditional art at the center recommends that programs be "modified to appeal to the donor base" and better reflect community interests, and that activities provide more support to local artists and include "historical work."

"Emphasis will be put on providing more services to the residents of Huntington Beach," according to the proposal.

It was written by Michael Mudd, the city's cultural services manager, who, under the proposal, would assume oversight of programs and operations from Naida Osline, the center's founding director. Osline, who also has been the city's special events coordinator, would be promoted to that position full time in May.

Center programs and viewing hours would be scaled down to meet a budget of $310,000, down from the present $350,000. A director would be rehired "when funding is available," and a committee of community members would help choose exhibitions, according to terms of the proposal.

Other possibilities, Hagan said, include merging the center with another institution, subsidizing it with more tax dollars or bringing in more traveling exhibits that are less expensive to mount than those organized by the center.

Mudd declined to discuss his proposal but said that whatever changes "we will recommend [to the council] will probably be very good for the community and the art center."

Hagan said local donors who have lately been reluctant to contribute "are willing to pay for traditional art."

Many of these donors say that they like cutting-edge art but complain that the venue shows too much of it, added Diana Casey, co-chair of the Huntington Beach Arts Foundation, which raised $1 million from the community to open the center--though refurbishing the old Edison building it occupies wound up costing $1.25 million.

Some donors want greater variety, Casey said, including exhibitions of "glass or sculpture" and "art they can relate to."

"They just don't want to donate one more dollar," Casey said, and are particularly turned off by performance-art programs. Internationally known artist Tim Miller, in a performance last year at the center, disrobed and discussed his homosexuality.

Public response to center programs has been mixed since the venue opened in 1995 with a show about lesbian families, racism and homelessness.

Osline disputed criticisms about a lack of variety or community involvement, noting center exhibits about skateboard culture, UFOs and the Grateful Dead.

The center also has shown art by local high-school students and annually fills its three galleries with a non-juried "open call" exhibit of work by community residents, she said.

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