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A shifting canvas in Pasadena

The city has long had a vibrant arts scene. But now it finds its 'genteel tradition' in flux.

February 07, 2010|By Cara Mia DiMassa

Ever since railroads and orange groves brought great wealth to Pasadena more than a century ago, the city has carried out a tradition of giving back in the form of art.

At the turn of the last century, Pasadena's love of the arts was part of what historian Kevin Starr called a "genteel tradition," which included a Shakespeare Club and a Grand Opera House.

Later, museums such as the Norton Simon and the Pacific Asia (not to mention the Huntington in neighboring San Marino), and venues including the Pasadena Playhouse and the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, added to what many in the region regarded as one of the best cultural offerings for a city of its size.

But these days, Pasadena's art scene is in flux.

The city is reeling from the announcement that the venerable Pasadena Playhouse is closing because of money woes. Three years ago, the city's two main orchestras, the Pasadena Symphony and the Pasadena Pops, merged, and since then, the joint organization has struggled financially as well.

All three organizations struggled with an aging demographic base, mounting debt and increased competition from other art venues around Southern California.

By contrast, museums such as the Huntington and the Norton Simon have managed to attract a younger and more diverse audience, including families. The Huntington, for example, has in recent years opened a children's garden as well as a Chinese garden, which garnered significant financial support from the area's wealthy Asian community.

At the same time, some avant-garde performing arts groups are rising, challenging the stereotypes of Pasadena's arts scene as a place that honored tradition but rarely pushed the envelope.

A new outlook

With bold aesthetics and risky programming, organizations such as Furious Theatre, The Theatre @ Boston Court, the Pasadena Museum of California Art and Side Street Projects are managing to challenge Pasadena convention.

Side Street has installed funky mobile art installations across the city, while Furious Theatre staged the world premiere of "Canned Peaches in Syrup," a post-apocalyptic love story in which the world is divided into cannibals and vegetarians.

"It definitely seems as if the perception of Pasadena as a stodgy place has been challenged," said Nick Cernoch, general manager of Furious Theatre.

Some of Pasadena's arts organizations are pushing for a younger, diverse audience by hosting musical events at museums, say, or tailoring specific exhibitions. The Pacific Asia Museum recently included manga and anime in an exhibition about Japanese samurai, as a way to broaden the exhibit's appeal.

The result, said Terry LeMoncheck, executive director of the Pasadena Arts Council, a nonprofit group that supports arts organizations in the area, is that things are shifting. "But they should be," she added. "If art isn't shifting, there's something wrong. And it's probably not art."

Though Pasadenans long reveled in their city's self-contained nature, which allowed them to partake of rich cultural offerings without having to get on a freeway, that has begun to shift.

More competition

The last two decades have seen an explosion in the region's arts scene, and with the remaking of organizations such as LACMA and MOCA and the introduction of the Walt Disney Concert Hall and Getty Center, several arts leaders said they now find themselves competing for audiences not just with one another, but also with the larger L.A. arts scene.

Theater- and museum-goers who once never traveled west of the 110 or east of the 605 are discovering venues elsewhere. That's created problems for some local organizations trying to attract and keep members.

For some organizations, that has meant looking beyond the San Gabriel Valley for financial and audience support. Michael Seel, executive director of the Theatre @ Boston Court, said that some of his organization's members come from the Westside, Claremont and Orange County.

"The arts world in Southern California is highly competitive," said Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard. "But it's also vital. And Pasadena has continued to develop as a center of arts and cultural activities."

Several area arts leaders said that the economic downturn has exacerbated a divide that was already starting to occur.

"It's a mixed bag in Pasadena," said Scott Ward, executive director of the Armory Center for the Arts, a community arts center. "Some nonprofits are really strong, fiscally, and others are a bit more close to the precipice."

A landmark's woes

In the case of the Pasadena Playhouse, the financial struggles of the 90-year-old landmark had been well-known among many of the city's culturally connected residents. And though the Playhouse had a loyal subscriber base, many of those supporters were aging and either dying off or not attending theater anymore.

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