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Ring Festival passes 'event baton' to Getty for 'Pacific Standard Time'

July 1, 2010 |  5:09 pm

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After sipping wine and munching grilled fruit in the J. Paul Getty Museum’s entrance hall Wednesday, about 200 members of the Los Angeles arts scene witnessed the business at hand: a literal passing of the baton so that arts-impresarioship as a community-wide undertaking continues.

The passer was Los Angeles Opera, orchestrator not only of its own just-concluded production of Richard Wagner’s epic “Ring” cycle, but of the Ring Festival that sprang up around it, as 122 cultural organizations hitched themselves to the Wagnerian wagon and mounted their own exhibitions, performances, film screenings and talks, discussions and symposia related directly or tangentially to the composer and his magnum opus.

The recipient was the J. Paul Getty Trust, which is marshaling a regionwide project, “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980” that will start in the fall of 2011, with more than 50 participants enlisted, and counting.

The conductor’s baton, white with a tan cork handle, came from the desk of L.A. Opera’s music director, James Conlon, and bore his signature.

“We’re thrilled to accept this baton and the challenge it represents,” Deborah Marrow, interim president and chief executive of the J. Paul Getty Trust, said after L.A. Opera’s chief operating officer, Stephen Rountree, had passed it to her amid applause.

In an interview this week, Barry Sanders, the L.A. Opera board member who led the Ring Festival, said the festival had introduced a fruitful new math to Southern California’s cultural equation: “We were able to demonstrate that one and one equals three.”

He was referring to the synergy of having different cultural groups do their own things, at their own expense, but with a unifying theme. Sanders said that the early returns from an ongoing survey of festival participants shows that the organizations and their events enjoyed more exposure, and ultimately a bigger audience, than they were likely to reap for their typical stand-alone offerings.

With 34 of the 122 groups responding, he said, 78% said the festival connection had boosted their audience, and 10 of the 12 who had charged admission (many festival events were free) said it had helped ticket sales. Nearly 39% rated their Ring Festival event as their “most important event of the season.”

The key, Sanders told the Getty gathering, was that “the participants didn’t just check the box, they didn’t just mail it in…. Every [offering]  was work that people put their hearts into, work of the first quality.”

Kevin McMahon, a board member of the Musical Theatre Guild, which mounts staged-concert revivals of offbeat and under-the-radar shows at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, said its June 14 production of “Das Barbecu,” a 1994 off-Broadway comedy that lightheartedly translated the “Ring” to contemporary Texas, with a country-music score, got an attendance boost of “at least 10%” from its Ring Festival affiliation.

While the guild had decided to produce “Das Barbecu” before learning of the Ring Festival, McMahon said, it made sure to schedule it in June to coincide with the L.A. Opera’s climactic staging of three full cycles of Wagner’s four-part opus. The decision bore fruit when, among others, a busload of about 20 Wagnerians from Australia, in town for the “Ring,” helped themselves to a side dish of “Das Barbecu.”

“They said they had a great time,” McMahon said.

The economic infrastructure of the April 1 to June 30 Ring Festival was bare-bones: L.A. Opera kicked in an estimated $150,000 in staff time and promotional spending; the partners produced their own events, at their own cost. Participants ranged from big, mainstream institutions (such as classical radio station KUSC-FM, UCLA and Griffith Observatory, whose “Light of the Valkyries” planetarium show is ongoing) to grass-roots ones (the California Art Club, whose members’ Wagner-inspired paintings remain on display through July 16 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels).

"Pacific Standard Time" also will feature partner organizations doing their own things, at their own expense, around a single theme: the development and influence of the Southern California contemporary art scene. But it also has the benefit of the Getty’s deep pockets and its mission, which includes making millions of dollars in annual grants to the visual arts. By the time the exhibitions begin, Marrow said, the Getty will have provided $10 million for research and exhibition costs to 30 of the participating museums.

Sanders told reception attendees that the Ring Festival reached an estimated 462,000 people via 1,000 events. L.A. Opera officials acknowledged that this accounting includes the total draw of more generalized destinations and events, such as the downtown cathedral and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA, where there was no guarantee that all who came actually sampled the Ring-related components.

Hype aside, the Ring Festival legitimately can claim to have been accorded the sincerest form of flattery.  San Francisco Opera, which will stage its own “Ring” production next June, announced in May that assorted arts and cultural institutions in the Bay Area will join it for a Wagner-themed festival.

-- Mike Boehm

Photo: Stephen Rountree and Deborah Marrow. Credit: Steve Cohn / Steve Cohn Photography