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Laguna Festival Integrity Debated

The big-draw annual event cuts it close to the bone financially, but efforts to expand and boost revenue trigger an image-protection fight.

August 18, 2003|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

Debate that began earlier this summer over a proposal to license the Festival of Arts' trademark Pageant of the Masters stage production worldwide has kindled a broader controversy in Laguna Beach: Can the annual festival find new ways to make money without losing its homespun charm?

This is no idle question in the beachside city, whose artsy character is mirrored in the 70-year-old summer festival.

Critics say that including actress Jane Seymour in the festival this year as a celebrity artist, bringing in a chic restaurant as the food concessionaire, and prominently displaying a new Mercedes among the art suggest a commercialization that cheapens the festival.

But the festival is barely breaking even. From revenue approaching $6.5 million annually, its latest financial statements show it earned a small surplus of $275,000 in 2001 -- not even enough to make up for the combined $325,000 it lost the previous two years.

The new executive director said he was hired to find new sources of revenue. Steven Brezzo said that is no easy task in Laguna Beach, where "people have been resistant to any type of change."

To illustrate his point, he repeats the Pageant of the Masters' slogan this year -- "70 years and still standing still" -- which refers to the pageant's tableaux vivants, re-creations of art masterpieces with live models on stage. However catchy that slogan, Brezzo said, "it's no way to run an organization. It's my job to help them see that."

The dispute threatens to roil the calm that followed six tense years of lease negotiations between the festival board and the city, which owns the festival grounds off Laguna Canyon Road.

The city began negotiating a new lease in 1996 with a board of festival directors who were then recalled in 2000 after they threatened to move the event to San Clemente.

Under the new lease, the festival will pay Laguna Beach $200,000 a year to use the property, compared with the $600,000 in rent that prompted the festival board to consider moving.

"The community cannot believe that we have a new board which was against moving the pageant to San Clemente but might favor duplicating the pageant in Europe or Asia," said City Councilman Wayne Baglin.

The festival is both a blessing and a burden each year to the locals, who welcome the tourist dollars spent in restaurants, hotels and shops, yet dread the crowds that gobble up precious parking spaces and clog the streets.

But they have learned to endure with grace the annual affair that runs from early July to the end of August and attracts more than 250,000 visitors.

Many of the 140 or so participating artists, who exhibit their work in a gallery adjoining the open-air theater where the pageant is staged, have been doing so for years and see themselves much like a fraternity -- one that not just anyone can join. A jury selects the artists who display and sell their oils, watercolors, sculptures and other works.

Actress Jane Seymour of "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" fame, who paints, was given a spot without having to face a jury. Several artists complained that her work was not up to the standards of the festival and that she took a place that could have been given to a professional artist.

Not true, photographer and board member Bruce Rasner said. In fact, there are five more artists exhibiting this year than last, he said.

Brezzo said Seymour was asked to display her work at the festival to increase attendance. She will also host the festival's fund-raising banquet.

"These are such basic, promotional, audience-building, supportive kinds of gestures," he said.

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