Muckenthaler Cultural Center Finds a Way to Thrive During the Pandemic

The Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton hosted drive-in movie nights this summer in partnership with Santa Ana's Frida Cinema.

The Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton hosted drive-in movie nights this summer in partnership with Santa Ana's Frida Cinema.

For anyone, or anything else, in this county whose livelihood, passion or purpose deals in some way with public appraisal of creative effort, the past five months (and who knows how much longer), have mostly been a waking nightmare. Whether downsizing or canceling seasons, pivoting to online/virtual programming, reaching out to peers or patrons to keep the artistic conversation alive, or praying they hang on long enough to survive, no one is beating the pandemic.

Farrell Hirsch

But Farrell Hirsch and the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton are coming close.

Hirsch is the CEO of the Muck. Like anyone charged with running a cultural or artistic entity, to pay the bills he has to keep the doors open. And that means doing the work. But Hirsch, who joined the Muck in 2017, is the type of person for whom promotion and producing is less a job than something that seems sewn into his DNA. The show must go on isn’t a cliché for him as much a lifestyle.

That’s why as late as March 10, there was no way that this “stupid virus,” as he called it, was going to derail any Muckenthaler events. Like the plane trip to California wine country five days later. But after he confirmed his plans with the travel agent on the 10th, the NBA and the NHL canceled their seasons the next day and Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that all gatherings across the state were canceled until at least the end of the month.

On March 12th, Hirsch said, “there was no way we were getting on that plane.” By the 15th, with Newsom’s stay-at-home order, Hirsch was looking at all the Muck’s revenue streams drying up — the music concerts, art classes, weddings, and the always popular car show and jazz festival in May and June.

Faced with so much uncertainty, Hirsch did what anyone in charge of a 55-year-old cultural institution would do: turned off the lights, sent his staff home and waited it out.

Not quite.

“There was never a thought of closing,” said Hirsch, a New York state native, theater and awards show producer, author and playwright, who joined the Muck in 2017 after 15 years with Sirius Radio launching new networks.

“Conceptually, our mission is to enrich the human spirit through the arts,” he said. “That’s what it says. It doesn’t say to enrich the human spirit only when it’s convenient or easy.

Digging Deep to Keep Going

Hirsch didn’t like the idea of transitioning exhibits online or streaming concerts. But he knew he wanted to do something; he just didn’t know how to do it.

Then  he started getting emails from arts organizations and companies like Coca Cola and McDonald’s saying something to the effect of “in these times of trouble, we want you to know we’re with you all the way, and stay healthy and we’ll be there on the other side.”

Hirsch said the thought was positive, but a similar email to Muck’s 60,000-member email list didn’t sit right with him. It felt like giving up.

“My thought was this is a serious virus, but it was also (that) we have a problem,” he said. “That’s the road we take here: how do we solve any problem? That shouldn’t be revolutionary [for any arts organization]; it should be pretty standard, I think.”

Photo courtesy of the Muckenthaler Cultural Center

Volunteers help to assemble face masks in the gallery at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center.

Instead, Hirsch sent an email that said “the last thing the world needs right now is another self-appointed medical expert. We will not use this space to tell you what to do. We will use the space and whatever intellectual power we have to follow our mission.”

 Surprisingly, Hirsch said, that got unintended results.

“Literally hundreds of thank you letters, and money,” he said. “People started sending us checks. We didn’t ask for checks. Not a million-dollar check but $10 checks $50, $100, just because we were doing something different.”

That’s when Hirsch decided  as long as the state was in mandatory quarantine, the Muck would launch a new program each week. And it did for 12 weeks. There were light-hearted videos sent every week to the email list, to both lighten the serious mood as well as to stay connected. There was a poetry event, the launch of an outdoor sculpture garden, using the Muck’s closed interior gallery space to make masks and shields.

“People just started coming in to help,” he said. “Volunteers felt more attached to the organization and people started donating money again.”

And then there was an idea that Hirsch never thought would fly.

Marcia Judd, a CSUF professor and one of the Muck’s art teachers, approached him with an idea. With so many kids home from school, and the schools struggling to figure out distance learning, what about assembling art kits that parents could pick up at the Muck and take home?

Photo courtesy of the Muckenthaler Cultural Center

Art kits are assembled lined up ready to hand out to families each week.

Hirsch said he thought maybe 30 families would pick up the kit, but he agreed. After ensuring it was COVID-safe, the program was launched.

“By the time it got rolling we were serving 500 families a week,” Hirsch said. “ It cost us about $300 a week and I mentioned that our newsletter and dozens of people threw in $300 which paid for the whole program.”

A similar project for seniors in the city of Anaheim followed shortly after.

After the quarantine lifted, the Muck kept rolling out new programs, like a pop-up drive-in movie theater co-produced with the Frida Cinema that sold out its first showing, “The Princess Bride,” in 47 seconds, and opening its art gallery to individuals and up to three guests for 15 minutes at a time — “a concierge gallery,” Hirsch called it.

The Muck has kept its doors open, and even with the loss of wedding and other revenue, the extra, unsolicited donations have put it near the break-even mark, Hirsch said. And it’s also given the Muck one of the higher profiles of any arts entity in the county during the pandemic, with newspaper coverage and TV stations, including Telemundo, doing pieces on it and seven mentions on the Spectrum Cable news channel.

A Larger-Than-Life Figure

Richard Stein, the president and CEO of Arts Orange County since 2008, isn’t surprised. He said that Hirsch, who had never even been in Fullerton before the day he interviewed for the Muck position, was a perfect fit for a Fullerton institution that had been around a long time, but was battling some perceptions, or misperceptions, of being a country club on a hill, or the playground of a few old Fullerton families. Neither of which was true, says Matthew Leslie, who worked for the Muck for 20 years until last year as a curator and who helped resurrect the Muck’s art classes after they’d become dormant in the 1990s.

Zoot Velasco, who was hired in 2007, raised the center’s profile, greatly expanding its connections across Southern California, and also began aggressively pursuing grants. Today, the Muck teaches in about 300 locations, Hirsch said, including prisons, homeless shelters, facilities for domestic violence immigrant centers, and senior centers. After an eight month stint running the Kern County Museum, Velasco returned to Fullerton in 2018 to run Cal State Fullerton’s Gianneschi Center for Nonprofit Research.

“Zoot was a larger-than-life guy, charismatic and flamboyant, and had lots of ideas, he innovated,” Stein said. “And filling his shoes was going to be difficult. But after Farrell was hired, I thought, ‘Wow, they got another larger-than-life figure.’ Farrell is every bit as imaginative of a leader, and charismatic. That was evident before the pandemic, but he’d already been trying new things, so he was already (ahead of that curve).

“You can’t say anybody else in the county hasn’t done similar things, but he was so quick about it, and I think what’s he’s done is shown very much the adaptability of an organization like that, if you are creative.”

The Muckenthaler does have some built-in advantages, Hirsch said. It doesn’t pay rent, since the city still owns the property, although a foundation runs it. And it has its expansive outside grounds, particularly its north and west lawns. Plus, the staff is small enough to be nimble and flexible, a relative luxury that larger operations don’t have.

Photo courtesy of the Muckenthaler Cultural Center

Sean Oliu performs a concert to an audience of cars on the grounds at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center.

But Hirsch doesn’t buy that some arts organizations are too big to adapt to the pandemic.

“I hear people say things like, ‘We’re kind of a big ship in the ocean and we need a wide berth.’ No you don’t. I’m not buying this, ‘Well we’ve done this 117 years the same exact way’ thing. No, the world is full of pivoting and change. Nothing is permanent except change. You’ve been dealing with it your whole life. You don’t live in your parents’ house anymore. Don’t be afraid of change,  don’t think there is one moment that is the pivot point. You are always going to be changing, embrace it.”

Even so, Hirsch doesn’t downplay the severity of the pandemic or the toll it is exacting on so many arts institutions. But that shouldn’t cripple the creativity of people whose business is creativity, he said.

“This virus is no joke. It’s not a hoax. My brother had it and feared for his life. I just think people aren’t exercising the full weight of their brains, their creativity. There are ways to still do things and do them safely. You can’t operate business as usual, that’s not going to happen. But there’s a way to do it.”

Hirsch said one way arts entities can gain a different perspective is to remember the scene in the Beatles film “Let It Be.”

“The Beatles didn’t (play ‘Get Back’) in the studio, they did on the roof. What’s your roof look like? What’s your parking lot like? What does the front lawn of your board’s president look like? I don’t know what the answers are for each individual group, but there’s one out there.”

The Show Must Go On

Thus far, Hirsch has positioned the Muck as one of the county’s artistic success stories during the pandemic. That’s great, he says, but he’d like to get back to something familiar.

“I don’t mind a little bit of improvisation, but certainty is better. But I am glad that our team has a lot of skills.”

But until then, he’s committed to fulfilling the Muck’s original season of 52 events. No events will be canceled; if an artist or group can’t appear due to safety concerns, he’ll find another to fill the slot.

Photo courtesy of the Muckenthaler Cultural Center

The Muckenthaler Cultural Center displays art in an outdoor gallery.

And even major events like the Muck’s gala won’t be virtual. 

“You’ll still come and get food and hear a Grammy-Award winning band, it’s just going to be set up a little differently. Think of it as an adventure,” he said.

And Hirsch said the Muck will keep the one Big Event he likes to program every year. Last year, it was the 26-piece Doc Severinsen Orchestra. This year, it’s “The Great Gatsby” ballet.

“It’s got these giant set pieces and it was just brilliant. And I thought it’d be brilliant to bring it to a mansion that was built in the same year that the novel was written. But we’re taking it off the stage. It’s going to be site-specific environmental theater using the inside of the mansion and the lawns.”

As far as what lies beyond the pandemic, Hirsch, a history major at the University of Buffalo, drops a historical reference to convey how the Muck will continue to follow its mission.

“Our other motivational factor is (Newton’s) first law of physics,” he said. “An object in motion tends to stay in motion. So, we’re going to stay in motion.”

Joel Beers is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at jobeers@hotmail.com.