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O.C. arts groups hang together while trying to hang on

December 12, 2008 | 12:49 pm

Samueljohnson_3Benfranklin_3 Orange County's 21st century arts leadership took a cue this week from two of the great figures of the 18th century. Samuel Johnson, the English critic and lexicographer, once remarked that "the prospect of hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully," and it was Benjamin Franklin who told his fellow signers of the Declaration of Independence that "we must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Having witnessed the equivalent of a hanging in their midst -- the funding collapse that last month doomed Opera Pacific -- 14 leaders from 13 nonprofit arts organizations in O.C.  on Wednesday decided it was time to hang together as they concentrated their minds on how to survive Mortgagegate (you got a better shorthand for the economic mess we're in?) more or less intact.

Logo_3Richard Stein, the former Laguna Playhouse executive director who now heads the local arts council, Arts Orange County, said there hadn't been such a summit in at least 10 years. "There was not an organization in that room that isn't experiencing weak ticket sales, weak donations, and isn't very concerned about the future," Stein said Thursday. "There was an urgency felt by everybody to talk about ways we could help each other out."

Besides sharing wisdom on marketing methods and the like, Stein said, the consortium decided that there's a need to combine efforts in bannering the arts in general, in addition to their individual bids to attract audiences and donors.

Rickstein_2"The arts community needs to do a better job of communicating its value," Stein said. "There is a select number of usual suspects in every community who are the most generous and passionate" about donating to the arts. Many others, he said, don't even know that museums and performing groups rely on donations for their survival, so growing the philanthropic garden is a must.

To that end, Stein says he'll be "out on the hustings" at chamber of commerce meetings and such, trying to make the case that arts advocates are always trying to put forward: That the arts are not mere icing on the life of a community, but an indispensable additive to the dough -- a civic yeast that helps the economy and kids' educational performance to rise, and, as Stein puts it, "really changes lives for the better."

Arts Orange County recently launched a website, Spark OC, aimed at helping the county's residents and visitors navigate cultural offerings, including that ever-more-popular (dare we say "necessary") category, "Free Events."

Stein also will debut Jan. 7 as the host of a weekly, five-minute arts and culture segment on the Wednesday edition of "Real Orange," the daily public affairs program of KOCE, the county's Huntington Beach-based public television station.

Meanwhile, the hanging-together will continue for an arts-summit group that, in addition to Stein, included top executives from the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Irvine Barclay Theatre, Orange County Museum of Art, Laguna Art Museum, Muzeo, Bowers Museum, Pacific Symphony, Pacific Chorale, Philharmonic Society of Orange County, Saint Joseph Ballet, South Coast Repertory and Laguna Playhouse.

Stein said he ended with a suggestion that they meet again in three to six months. "The response was, 'Sooner! Please organize one in the next several weeks.' People feel the need to get together and share ideas and strategies."

Obviously, these minds have been concentrated.

-- Mike Boehm

Photo credits: Painting of Samuel Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds /Huntington Library; painting of Benjamin Franklin by Mason Chamberlin /Philadelphia Museum of Art; photograph of Richard Stein by Chris Trela.

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