How Orange County’s Visual Arts World is Coping with the Coronavirus

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

LagunaArt.com, has shut its doors and may not re-open. LagunaArt.com is located at the corner of North Coast Highway and Cliff Drive.

When news broke last week that the famed and beloved Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters will be canceled for the summer 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic, it sliced like a dagger in the collective heart of the Orange County art world.

It was the first time since 1942-45, during the height of World War II, that the festival and pageant have been forced to shut down.


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“It’s part of the fabric of who we are in Laguna Beach,” said Peter Blake, owner of Peter Blake Gallery in Laguna Beach for 27 years and a city councilman as well.

“It’s going to be a real difficult situation. It isn’t going to make anybody happy. The restaurants and businesses will be missing that traffic, the thousands of people that come to Laguna. Now having the festival close down — it’s going to be a difficult situation for this town.”

On Wednesday, Laguna Art-A-Fair announced that it is canceling its 2020 summer season as well. Now, the 54-year-old Sawdust Art Festival, the remaining art fest in Laguna, is faced with a serious dilemma. Can it pull off a socially distanced art festival, while maintaining standards set forth by the governor? The Sawdust is monitoring matters closely, wondering if it can move forward, or if it will have to shut its doors as well. 

Across the board in Orange County and beyond, museums, galleries and visual arts organizations are facing difficult decisions and canceling in-person programming for the months ahead — and the foreseeable future.

Even so, they are devising creative alternatives, bringing their collections and exhibitions online and crafting completely new programming for audiences who are, for the most part, still stuck at home.

“Shockingly, we’ve gotten a lot of donations,” said Farrell Hirsch, CEO of the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton. “This is us reaching out to groups that we don’t normally deal with or get involved with. We’ve found a whole new group of donors. It’s been good for us.”

The Muckenthaler, or the Muck as it’s known, has been putting together hundreds of art kits each week and handing them out to kids in the Muck parking lot and to seniors for curbside pickup at two Anaheim locations.

Meanwhile, the Orange County Museum of Art has been reinventing itself with robust online programming, including sponsoring a haiku-based sound collage public collaboration with L.A.-based sound artist Alan Nakagawa that was released on SoundCloud in April; producing other sound-based art projects with commissioned artists; and posting behind-the-scenes videos with artists in OCMA’s postponed season 4.

Image courtesy of OCMA

In April, the Orange County Museum of Art sponsored a sound collage public collaboration with L.A.-based sound artist Alan Nakagawa. The museum and Nakagawa collected haikus relating to the current pandemic and composed a sound collage out of them, posting them on SoundCloud.

The museum also produced a “What Day is it Again?” 24-hour video art festival, which started at 6 a.m. Thursday, May 21 and ended at 6 a.m. the following morning. And OCMA has been utilizing social media, with artist Kathryn Garcia leading a visual and audio meditation on OCMA’s Instagram account. On Facebook, OCMA has been making announcements, heralding its upcoming online events, and posting photos and videos of art, artists and progress on its new home, which is scheduled to open in 2021 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.

“There are so many silver linings to this crisis,” said Sarah Jesse, deputy director at OCMA, who oversees education, curatorial activities and everything dealing with OCMAExpand, the temporary space in Santa Ana. “With every crisis there have been opportunities, and this has been an opportunity for us.”

The Bowers Museum in Santa Ana has developed an online portal called “Bowers at Home.” There, the museum is offering access to virtual exhibitions, including its recently opened (and closed) “Inside the Walt Disney Archives.” Bowers at Home also features a blog, a podcast, free music playlists, an audio tour of the museum and projects for kids under the “Kidseum at Home” umbrella.

In addition, the Bowers’ Tangata restaurant has partnered with Mariners Church to cook, prep and deliver more than 8,000 meals to local hospitals and healthcare workers.

Other O.C. Efforts

The Laguna Art Museum also has developed a “LAM at Home” website, with recorded music concerts, video versions of its Thursday night programming, lectures, virtual walkthroughs of the exhibitions that opened just before the quarantine, and “LAM+LAB at Home,” which consists of art projects for all ages, especially kids.

“Our LAM+LAB at Home pages have been popular,” said Cody Lee, LAM’s director of communications. “Those projects were among our first digital offerings after the museum closed, with our education team working quickly to develop content that could be useful for teachers and parents, modeled on the projects that normally take place inside the museum or in classrooms where our educators travel. We now have more than a dozen online art projects that relate to the museum’s exhibitions and collections.”

Casa Romantica in San Clemente has been producing engaging stay-at-home programming on its website. There are virtual exhibitions and art break talks, a virtual yoga class every Monday at 9 a.m., kids’ activities, a video of a 2019 dance performance by the Indian Blue13 Dance Company, and a curated list of top 10 dance films before 1965. On May 26 at noon, Casa Romantica will present a Virtual Book Club, with an online conversation from noon to 1:45 p.m. about “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean, followed by a Zoom Happy Hour from 2-3 p.m.

“As an arts organization, we provide enrichment opportunities for people,” said Amy Behrens, the relatively new executive director of Casa Romantica. “Although we had to suspend public hours, because the safety of our public is most important to us, that doesn’t mean we stop fulfilling our mission. We’re here for people to help combat loneliness, isolation and depression by giving our community a place for them to feel inspired online.

“We want to comfort people in challenging times and give them a sense of hope and escape. We’re here for people of all ages, wherever they are physically. We’ll remain committed to doing that, reach as many people as we can. That’s absolutely our intent.”

Moving Forward Despite Uncertainty

Even as it faces cancellation of its festival and pageant, the Festival of Arts is still engaging with its audience with a well-received #TourDePageant on its social media channels.

Currently, the festival is highlighting its artists with a #MeetTheArtists series on Facebook and Instagram. And the festival is in the initial stages of creating a virtual art exhibit and other art initiatives, according to Sharbie Higuchi, director of marketing and public relations for the festival.

The Sawdust Art Festival has proposed a modified version of its gathering to the Laguna Beach City Council, which includes different starting dates; a 50 percent reduction of maximum crowd capacity; a 33 percent reduction in daily operational hours and concessions; a 33 percent reduction in live stage areas; a 25-30 percent reduction in overall exhibitor space, with fewer booths and no mini-booths; no interactive art classes; Plexiglas barriers at ticket stations, sales and information booths; hand sanitizing stations throughout the grounds; separate entrances and exits; and creative social distancing signs throughout the festival grounds.

Image courtesy of the Sawdust Festival

The popular Sawdust Art Festival in Laguna Beach faces a big dilemma this summer. Will it open with limited capacity with social distancing? Or will it cancel, following in the footsteps of the Festival of Arts/Pageant of the Masters? The answer could come in the next couple of weeks. Image courtesy of the Sawdust.

In the meantime, the Sawdust has also put classes, archival materials and artists’ work for sale in a “Sawdust Virtual Experience.”

Even More Virtual Programs

Here are some additional virtual and online efforts by other arts organizations in Orange County:

  • The Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana has been working with artist Pablo Helguera to develop “The Grand Central Singing Telegram Co.,” which allows people to send free singing telegrams to others via Zoom. Helguera sings in both Spanish and English and has reached out to recipients in Switzerland, Argentina, Turkey, Mexico, Singapore, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, Ecuador, Austria, Puerto Rico and 26 states in the U.S.
  • Muzeo in Anaheim has completed a virtual tour of its local history exhibit on its YouTube channel and is working on another tour of Second Baptist Church in Santa Ana. Muzeo has also produced an instructional video for children on creating art from trash and recycled items, in conjunction with its annual TrashART exhibit and challenge. In addition, Muzeo has provided online resources that correspond with its exhibition, “50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic.”
  • The Hilbert Museum of California Art is providing daily posts of its art on Instagram and Facebook. The project is called “At Home with the Hilbert Museum.” The next exhibition that was planned, the California Art Club’s Gold Medal Exhibition, will go completely online, according to museum director Mary Platt.
  • The Laguna Plein Air Painters Association recently hosted a “Strong & Positive Postcards Art Auction,” featuring 109 artists painting on 5-inch by 7-inch postcards. The nonprofit organization raised $24,482, exceeding its goal of $20,000. Proceeds will go to the artists and the organization.
  • The Orange County Center for Contemporary Art (OCCCA) is working on an exhibition called “OCCCA at 40,” celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Santa Ana-based nonprofit art center. Artists who have shown at OCCCA over the last four decades are invited to submit an image, and the deadline is Saturday, May 23. The invitational will be an entirely online exhibition. In August, OCCCA hopes to open “Terra Incognita,” an exhibition of couples who are artists. If the exhibition is allowed to open Aug. 1, OCCCA will adhere to strict rules of social distancing for participants and visitors.

Galleries Hit Hard

Now is still a very difficult time for art galleries across the country. Art is not considered an “essential” item, like food, medicine or clothing.

Art collectors are not able to physically visit galleries or art fairs, where many galleries make connections and sales. In addition, art is viewed by most as a luxury item, and given the pandemic-caused recession that’s looming, people are not spending money on paintings, sculptures or pretty photographs.

“My business is way off. The art world doesn’t take a slight reduction. It goes full on or full off,” Laguna gallerist Blake said. “We’re talking a serious reduction in business. Being closed for two months, not being able to do the art fairs – it’s having a tremendous impact.”

Blake recalls a recent conversation he had with Dominique Lévy, considered one of the most successful art gallerists in the world. “She said her business was down 90 to 95%,” he said. “If she is doing that bad, imagine how everyone else is doing. Internationally, (coronavirus) is having a huge effect.”

Locally, nearly all galleries have closed their doors under Gov. Newsom’s stay-at-home order and California’s Pandemic Roadmap. Although not specifically identified in the roadmap, galleries and museums would probably fall under Stage 3, or “higher risk workplaces,” along with other entertainment venues such as movie theaters.

The Laguna Beach gallery with one of the highest-profile locations, LagunaArt.com, has shut its doors, with the very real possibility of never re-opening again. LagunaArt.com is located at the corner of North Coast Highway and Cliff Drive, across the street from Laguna Art Museum and several prominent north Laguna Beach galleries.

At present, signs marked with spray paint on the sidewalks outside the gallery and in the windows declare, “Moving: Everything Must Go” and “Moving Out! Thanks Covid, Thanks State, Thanks to the Landlord” and “The State Says No More Art” and “We Can’t Stay Open When There’s No Business to Pay Rent.”

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

LagunaArt.com has shut its doors and may not re-open. LagunaArt.com is located at the corner of North Coast Highway and Cliff Drive.

“After the past three months of no income we are not able to pay the rent and the landlord has sent us an eviction notice, asking us 30 artists to vacate the premises June 2, 2020,” said Shane Townley, founder of LagunaArt.com, in an email.

“If Newsom does not sign another 90-day non-eviction order, we will have to leave the space in two weeks,” he continued. “We are not a restaurant; we can’t do takeout; we need the doors open to survive as an arts organization. This is the point of a gallery.”

Townley argued that galleries get less foot traffic than most other businesses, so it would make sense to open now, like other retail stores have been able to. The property owner could not be reached for comment.

Even if LagunaArt.com and other galleries are able to open in the coming weeks and months, things will not be the same as they were in the pre-coronavirus world.

“The gallery system was already broken before coronavirus,” Blake said. “The Amazon virus is worse than the actual coronavirus. People are buying their art online and at auctions. What you need is a paradigm shift. What coronavirus has shown us is that those not complying with the new way of doing business will either wind up complying, or getting out of it.”

Blake himself has taken on a Gesamtkunstwerk approach. That German word means “total artwork,” combining a host of endeavors — visual art, architecture and design, for instance — in one complete package.

“You can’t just have a white box,” he said. “You need a total cohesive body. In my role as an advisor, I’m a total designer of atmosphere. I make changes to their entire environment.”

The Bright Side

Despite the hard times that all museums, galleries and art institutions are experiencing, silver linings still abound.

The Muckenthaler is continuing its popular art kit pickups, with kids’ kits from 10 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays, and art kits for seniors at the Sunkist Library in Anaheim from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, and at the West Anaheim Youth Center from 4-5 p.m. every other Wednesday. Call (714) 765-3576 to reserve a senior art kit.

Photo courtesy of the Muckenthaler

Free senior art kits are nearly ready for pickup at two locations in Anaheim, including the Sunkist Library. They are left curbside at those locations.

The Muck has also started an outdoor sculpture garden on its grounds, with Orange County artist Bret Price’s red “Godot” chosen to be the first in the presentation. Additional pieces by Price and other artists are planned for installation.

Furthermore, the Muck just presented its annual car show online this past weekend. The Virtual Car Show 2020 included music by Darden, a local, all-female alternative/Americana/folk band. A drive-in movie, co-hosted with The Frida Cinema, is planned for the evening of May 25.

“We’re all quarantined to some degree,” Hirsch said. “There’s only so many shows on Netflix. Everybody needs their brain stimulated. Everybody needs their fingers moving. And everybody needs some connection to the outside world. Art is an expression of your soul, and if you have that need to express yourself, that’s what we’re here for. We made a pledge to our constituencies that we would launch a new project every week.”

Sarah Jesse of OCMA concurs.

“I’ve seen from the quantity and participation, and it’s really, really clear to me,” she said. “That’s why I’m in the art museum field. It’s just how important the arts are, right now. Especially right now.

“People need to be able to deal with the stress and anxiety of the time, but also the boredom and the monotony of the time. I still feel like we’re fulfilling our public service role by offering these programs. There will definitely be parameters on this experience. And things will look different than what it was pre-pandemic.”

Richard Chang is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC, focusing on the visual arts. He can be reached at richiechang@gmail.com.


UPDATE: This story was updated on May 26 to reflect an increased number of meals delivered by the Bowers Museum.