Orange County Arts Awards Contain Messages of Frustration and Hope

The winners and presenters of the 2018 Orange County Arts Awards. (Photo by Tony Lattimore)

Excerpt from Sarah Rafael Garcia’s acceptance speech:

… I haven’t quite assimilated into your system – a system that prefers higher education and quid pro quo rather than evolving with those who were never given the opportunity to evolve on their own terms. Quite honestly, I will never assimilate. If I (did), Barrio Writers (a group that produces an annual anthology that Garcia edits) would never exist. Barrio Writers aims to empower teens in underserved areas through free creative writing workshops … We publish a book every year. Do you own it?

I tell my teens – thousands of them – that you have to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. One way to do that is to know what you’re walking into. Every time I walk into a room I count the people of color … who have made it through the doors. Today I counted 25, maybe a little bit more. Some are the labor force behind this event.

I know I am who I am today because of the opportunities I have received – opportunities such as the unconditional support of the Grand Central Arts Center (CSUF’s satellite campus in downtown Santa Ana) …

However, when an arts organization like Arts OC has taken 19 years to honor a Chicana from Sant’Ana, yet honors plenty of men like Allen Moon at Santa Ana Sites, I have to question the tokenism. After all, my whole family and friends can’t afford to be here. Artists I consider peers and mentors can’t afford to walk through these doors …

There are far more complexities in the arts industry than the lack of funds. There is racial, gender, and socioeconomic stratification that keeps this audience, and the gatekeepers, mostly white. Today, my three minutes shed light on just that.

I challenge you all to attend a Barrio Writers live reading over the next summer. We have 10 chapters between California and Texas … operating with little to no funds.

I challenge you to give five monetary awards to five Orange County Chicanx artists.

I challenge you to visit the only bookstore in Santa Ana, LibroMobile, and ask me how many Spanish books I sold that day.

I challenge you to hire me to replace a white gatekeeper because even though I tried to gain approval by getting an MFA in Creative Writing in 2015, I have yet to be hired or even offered a job as a Chicana artist – even though my city is approximately 80 percent Mexican-American.

I challenge you because I have always had to address your challenges as a feminist artist of color; because I overcame some of them. I’m here as an emerging artist after 44 years of experience, without a job or a place to live next year. Yet I’m still here.

Muchas gracias.

The Orange County Arts Awards is an affair that usually contains more self-congratulation than drama. Organized and run by Arts Orange County, a nonprofit advocacy group, the annual dinner and ceremony honors local artists, arts administrators and patrons in two categories: “Achievement” and “Legacy.”

The 19th annual awards ceremony, held on Tuesday at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ Samueli Theater, was made memorable by its first award recipient, Sarah Rafael Garcia, one of two people honored in the category of Emerging Artist/Arts Leader.

Instead of the usual “thank you” speech, Garcia, an author and founder of Barrio Writers in Santa Ana, delivered a pointed and passionate critique of the sexism, tokenism and racial discrimination that she says she has encountered as a writer, teacher and editor.

Garcia began by saying she was “flattered to be called ‘emerging’ at 44 years old.” Then she publicly aired some grievances that are usually heard only behind closed doors in a speech that exceeded the three-minute allotted limit but electrified the audience.

“There are far more complexities in the arts industry than the lack of funds,” Garcia said. “There is racial, gender, and socioeconomic stratification that keep this audience, and the gatekeepers, mostly white.” (A large excerpt from Garcia’s speech is included in the sidebar.)

While Garcia’s heartfelt words raised serious questions about elitism, power and the very purpose of art in the community, the next Emerging Artist winner, Brian Peterson, delivered a more soothing message about the power of art to connect people and encourage social activism.

The Miami, Fla. native, who moved to Orange County to take a job as a car designer for Kia Motors, is a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art. He and his wife chose to live in downtown Santa Ana, where they soon discovered that the neighborhood’s eclectic and dynamic environment included homeless people living in close proximity to their house.

Gradually, Peterson got to know some of them, and as he did his attitude toward the homeless changed. He realized he could help them.

The experience also brought on an artistic breakthrough. A talented portraitist, Peterson had been creatively blocked for years. Then he started sketching the faces of the homeless, and his art found new meaning.

Inspired to act, Peterson started Faces of Santa Ana. First he gets to know his subjects; then he paints a portrait of them on canvas. The art is sold, and the proceeds go towards rehabilitating them and giving their lives dignity.

“I stand before you today really as a representative of the 30-plus portraits and the 30-plus friends I’ve made over the last three years,” Peterson said. “I’m so grateful for them saying yes to me, because my life is completely different. They’ve showed me areas in my own heart where I’ve been living in judgment.”

The evening included entertainment as well as dinner, drinks and schmoozing for those in attendance, many of them Orange County’s arts leaders. Pacific Symphony violinist Jennise Hwang played two works by Astor Piazzolla. Broadway performer Scott Barnhardt sang two Sondheim classics. Guitarist Ciro Hurtado, a Latin Grammy Award nominee, performed solo. And the Irvine Barclay Theatre Jazz Band serenaded guests at an after-party outside the front doors of Samueli Theater.

Related article: Is It Time for Local Arts Leadership to Reflect a Changing World?

2018 Arts Orange County Awards

Achievement Awards

Emerging Artist/Arts Leader: Sarah Rafael Garcia, Brian Peterson

Outstanding Contribution to the Built Environment: Marlo Bartels

Helen Modjeska Cultural Legacy Awards

Outstanding Arts Organization: Laguna Art Museum

Artistic Visionary: Carol Saindon

Visionary Arts Leader: Paula Tomei, managing director, South Coast Repertory

Visionary Arts Patrons: Mark and Jan Hilbert

The awards ceremony was hosted by Richard Stein, executive director of Arts Orange County, and Debora Wondercheck, founder and CEO of the Arts & Learning Conservatory.

Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.