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Departure Clouds Laguna Arts Festival Plans

Executive director's resignation adds to the turmoil. New grounds improvements, fund-raising in doubt.

September 03, 2003|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

Long-sought improvements and fund-raising campaigns at the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts are jeopardized by the unexpected resignation of its executive director, the festival board president said Tuesday.

Bruce Rasner said that because the board is harshly divided over who should administer the festival and its Pageant of the Masters, "I don't think a replacement for him is coming anytime soon."

Steven Brezzo announced his resignation over the weekend, capping weeks of rancorous debate among artists and dividing board members over his administrative leadership of the 70-year-old festival.

Without an executive director, "we have no one in place to bring us other revenue sources," Rasner said, and without that funding, long-range festival improvement plans are stalled. "Everything that we've been talking about for the last few years will have to be put on hold or revisited."

About $1.5 million has been spent to improve the festival grounds' storm drain system, a retaining wall and the sound and lighting systems, Rasner said, but the festival has $650,000 in unexpected debt. He said that workshops used to construct Pageant stage sets need to be replaced at a cost of about $1.8 million.

Although that money has been set aside, other projects, such as a $10-million cover for the Irvine Bowl, are languishing.

"You can't do that with the income of ticket prices and artists' booth fees," Rasner said. It was Brezzo's job, said Rasner, to generate new income sources.

But some board members questioned whether the festival needs an executive director.

"We did [much] better without an executive director," said longtime board member David Young. The festival, he said, "is like a country fair. It's not a sophisticated business."

Said board member Ann Webster, who also opposes having an executive director: "It seems every time we try to have one we run into trouble."

The festival's future is clouded further as an October election nears for three of the nine board seats. Rasner and Young, who generally oppose each other on questions fundamental to the festival's future, are running for reelection. Director Scott Moore has decided to not run again.

Brezzo announced his resignation to supporters at the festival's black tie fund-raiser Saturday.

Brezzo, who was hired November 2002, came under fire for inviting actress Jane Seymour to exhibit her artworks at the festival without the approval of an artists' jury and for replacing Ruby's Diner as the festival's concessionaire with Zov's Bistro in Tustin.

Zov's announced Aug. 27 that it would not return to the festival next year. The restaurant's fare and prices were harshly criticized an a recent forum among festival board candidates.

The most contentious proposal floated by Brezzo was licensing the Pageant of the Masters so promoters could stage similar productions across the country. The pageant reenacts art masterpieces with live models and is the centerpiece of the two-month summer festival.

When word of talks between the festival and International Creative Management talent agency became known, there was an immediate outcry from city officials, several board members and local artists. Criticism of Brezzo -- for everything from his salary to his ideas -- grew.

"We never even got a chance to have him bring a specific proposal" to the board, Rasner said. "Out of hand it was rejected by the mayor, some candidates and a handful of artists."

The final straw, Brezzo said, was a recent candidates forum that he said turned into a shouting match.

He said he grew frustrated trying to balance the demands of a fractious board of directors and an arts community he believes is reluctant to change.

Rasner said Brezzo, whose last day is Oct. 15, never got the chance to do what he was hired to do.

He added that the future for bringing in other sponsors and vendors to the festival to help raise funds has also been jeopardized by the rancor and infighting.

"I'm worried that other sponsors will be dissuaded that this is a good environment to do business in," he said.

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