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Would-Be Directors of Struggling Arts Festival Urged to Show Colors

Festival of Arts members want answers about finances and how to end internal strife. "Everyone's gone bananas,' painter says.

August 24, 2003|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

At a feisty Saturday meeting spiked with applause, boos and name-calling, the artists whose works are showcased at the Festival of Arts challenged the candidates for its board of directors to spell out how they would mend the festival's budget problems and end its infighting.

The session was scheduled by artists unhappy that their annual meeting was moved from August to June -- before some of the artists arrived for the Laguna Beach festival's annual two-month run, and before some of the board's divisive proposals had come to light, starting a row over the festival's future.

The artists wanted to quiz the would-be directors about how they would make the event more profitable without selling the festival's soul -- what some of the 140 or so artists contend would happen if profit-making plans, such as licensing the signature show, the Pageant of the Masters, were carried out.

The atmosphere on the festival grounds is touchy enough that artists said they had to relocate the meeting several times, as the amphitheater and artist's lounge suddenly became "unavailable" to them.

Artists at Saturday's meeting said board deliberations had put so many on edge only one other time: in 2000, when the board was recalled after threatening to move the event to San Clemente.

The dispute reminds painter Helen Weld of "little kids fighting. The last five or six years, everyone's gone bananas and I'm not sure why," said the artist, who has exhibited her portraits at the festival since 1987.

The dialogue of the eight candidates running for three board seats in an October election reflected those strains

Most candidates said they opposed the idea of licensing the festival's signature show so other groups could perform it, a proposal that leaked out in July. Pageant of the Masters re-creates artistic masterpieces with live models -- called tableaux vivants -- ending each night with Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper."

"There's got to be sources other than quick-fix merchandising schemes," candidate John Barber said.

The 70-year-old festival is in a financial quagmire. Its latest statements show the event made a surplus of $275,000 in 2001, but that didn't make up for the combined $325,000 it lost the previous two years.

The board in October brought in a new executive director, Steven Brezzo, who views his job as finding new ways to boost revenue.

But artists were startled when actress Jane Seymour, of "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," was invited to display her paintings as a guest artist, bypassing the jury that chooses whose works can be displayed.

Brezzo and Bruce Rasner, the board of directors president who is running for reelection, also took heat for bringing in chic Zov's Bistro as the food concessionaire.

About 250,000 people each summer wind through canyons toward the ocean or along Coast Highway to attend the festival.

Candidate Anita Mangels, one of about 3,000 dues-paying members who can vote for board members, said those who have attended recent board meetings were stonewalled.

"The meetings I've been to are run with an iron fist, and artists are treated like nuisances," she said.

Bearing nearly all of the criticism was Rasner, a photographer and one of two incumbents whose three-year terms are expiring.

The other incumbent candidate, past president David Young, usually votes with the minority on the nine-member board.

Three of its members are up for election each year.

At one point, artists demanded that Rasner disclose Brezzo's salary -- $175,000 -- and if he had received a bonus. (He hasn't, Rasner said.) One man claimed Rasner once referred to a group of artists as "dingbats," causing candidate Barber to proclaim, "To me, we're all dingbats here today."

When Rasner said a question about Zov's contract was too complicated to answer, some of the nearly 60 artists in attendance booed.

"I have a little problem with other candidates who are making unbelievable, gossiping, rumor-mongering accusations," Rasner told the crowd.

Brezzo, who did not attend the meeting, said those who voiced opposition were in the minority.

"I think these people are perpetually upset," Brezzo said Saturday. "I think it's a tradition. It's like a blood sport around here."

After the meeting, photographer Bill Agee was confounded. "I've been here since 1982," he said, "and I've never seen it as contentious. There's a definite rift in the board, and there shouldn't be. This isn't the U.S. Senate."

Bob Henry, who attended with fellow board member Ann Webster, said, "The statement I'm making is this ...." He then turned to show the back of a black T-shirt from the event's last major turmoil, which read, "Save the Festival. Recall the Board."

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