Try It, You'll Like It: A Conversation With ARTS OC's Rick Stein

Rick Stein, Executive Director of ARTS OC
Rick Stein, Executive Director of ARTS OC
Nicholas Koon

For many arts professionals, the administrative aspect of things is a creative death sentence, as time spent on personal projects drops by the wayside and artists get ground up in the gears of keeping an organization afloat. A quick look at ARTS Orange County Executive Director Rick Stein's oeuvre--unflagging arts advocacy and patronage, the three blogs he maintains (one personal, the Spark-E! Blog for ARTS OC and a new arts education blog), the interviews he conducts on Public Television station KOCE, his stepping in for OC Register Theater critic Paul Hodgins when he's on vacation and his continuing work as a writer for AMERICAN THEATRE magazine--suggests that he may actually be more creative now than ever before.

Dave Barton /OC Weekly: What is Arts Orange County and what does it do?
Rick Stein: ArtsOC is an independent non-profit organization officially designated by the County of Orange as its local arts agency and state-local partner with the California Arts Council, the state arts agency. ArtsOC was founded in 1995 by Bonnie Brittain Hall, who served as its Executive Director until 2008. When she decided to retire, I was hopeful that the organization would find someone qualified to carry on her good work. Little did I know then it would be me!

The mission of ArtsOC, like most arts councils, is fairly broad so it can be agile enough to respond to the changing needs of the arts community.  Right now, our biggest priorities are: audience development, which we pursue through our cultural events website, our Spark-e! newsletter, our Imagination Celebration festival of arts for children and families, and our October Free Nights program; arts education advocacy, which we pursue through our Creative Edge program by building arts education coalitions in local school districts, providing an arts education resource blog, and offering a lecture this year by author Daniel H. Pink (A Whole New Mind); and recognition of artists, arts patrons and arts organizations at our annual Orange County Arts Awards event. We also gather data on the arts community, convene arts leaders, speak out on issues of importance to the arts community, and take on occasional special projects.

We are almost entirely funded through private grants and contributions. Notwithstanding our official status, the County of Orange provides us with no funding.

Fill us in on a week in the life of an Arts OC Executive Director.
Although I'm busy with the programs mentioned above, much of my time is spent figuring out ways to use the "bully pulpit" of ArtsOC to keep the cause of the arts at the forefront of people's minds.
My inspirations are Joe Papp, legendary founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theatre, and John Houseman, a founder of the Federal Theatre Project during the Great Depression. I met both of them, and they never shied away from a good fight in support of the arts. 

Sadly, both are long gone, but my current role model is Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, whom I've also met and heard speak and follow on The Huffington Post.  He is championing the notion that recessions are not the time for arts organizations to retreat from their missions and pander to the lowest common denominator with mass appeal programming, but a time for calculated risk-taking that reinforces the boldness and innovation we depend upon the arts to deliver.

Arts advocates largely became demoralized and gave up the fight for public arts funding years ago when the NEA was attacked and had its funds greatly reduced. 15 years' worth of apathy and inaction can't be turned around overnight, but I've made it a priority to re-build active relationships with elected officials and networks of arts supporters so that, perhaps, within time we can achieve our goals.

One of my fondest memories as a theatre critic was seeing the adaptation of Graham Green's Travels with My Aunt that you directed at The Laguna Playhouse. Are we ever going to see another local Rick Stein-directed theater production?
I got spoiled being able to pick any play I wanted to direct at the Playhouse. Directing as a freelancer usually means directing plays you don't like just for the money. Those are the kind of opportunities that have come my way and since I don't make my living by directing, I haven't pursued them.

You attend a lot of gallery showings, theatre productions, musical performances and dance. Aside from theatre, do you have a favorite medium?
I've always loved the visual arts, and had visited OC's three major museums. But until I got to ArtsOC, I had not explored the galleries (institutional and private), and I now know that I was missing out on a lot of exceptional work. There really are great artists in every genre here--from the edgy to the commercial.

I've made it a point to dig deeper into what's going on in the art scene here and to ensure that we're including it on and in our Spark-e! newsletter.

Orange County is often looked at as the also-ran of artistic communities, faring poorly when compared to Los Angeles (or even San Diego). How do you feel about that and what would you say are the county's strengths--and weaknesses?
I have a theory that OC has the richest dance scene in Southern California, and I'm aiming to convene its major players soon to discuss that and to promote collaboration. Strong dance programs at UCI, Chapman and Irvine Valley College, two major presenters of the world's best touring dance (OCPAC and The Barclay), two important dance festivals (Fall for Dance and Laguna Dance Festival), a highly respected annual laboratory for new works (National Choreographer's Initiative), three well established mid-sized dance organizations (Anaheim Ballet, Backhausdance and Festival Ballet Theatre), a unique dance organization serving underprivileged youth (The Wooden Floor), and literally dozens of small, pre-professional dance schools that also stage productions--make a case for Orange County emerging as a dance hub in the region. I'm sure there is more that I'm not even aware of.

I'm extremely fond of jazz, but it appears to be the one area of music not in great abundance in Orange County--still I see signs of it growing in popularity. Institutions like Soka University and UCI have strong jazz faculty and recitals, and OC is home to an eminent contemporary jazz saxophonist, Eric Marienthal, who will be honored at this year's OC Arts Awards in September. There are some fine local musicians who play area restaurants, OCPAC brings in a handful of widely known artists, the Muckenthaler and Laguna Beach Live present jazz series, and venues like The Coach House occasionally feature jazz headliners. We are also fortunate to have two excellent radio stations KSBR-FM (Saddleback College's contemporary jazz station) and KKJZ-FM (al State Long Beach's station that focuses more on traditional jazz and blues).

Artists often feel that there's not enough financial support out there for their work, in the form of grants or patronage. What is Arts Orange County doing about that and is there a remedy?
They're right about that.

First, the good news: ArtsOC has distributed nearly $1 million in grants since its inception, with funds from The Boeing Company, the County of Orange (briefly), and The James Irvine Foundation (in partnership with the Orange County Community Foundation). However, after 2010, ArtsOC no longer has a source of funds from which to issue grants, so we are actively seeking a new source or sources.

What ArtsOC is doing in the advocacy arena is intended to re-build a mechanism for statewide arts funding through the California Arts Council that was virtually eliminated 8 years ago. Many of OC's arts organizations benefited from CAC grants until that time, and those that did not qualify for direct funding were able to benefit from technical assistance funds.

But there is also the philanthropy side, and while OC's major arts organizations have enjoyed strong support over the years, that support came from a small number of wealthy visionaries whose numbers are dwindling as they die, and there is not a new generation of philanthropists who have been groomed to take over. Theories abound as to why that's the case: they never had arts education or other exposure to the arts, they don't attend or participate in the arts, they are more interested in social issues or the environment, they're simply not interested in philanthropy. It's a real problem here and in many other communities, and is not easily remedied. It will require an enormous process of educating the public about the value of the arts and the need for support, one that will take years to bear fruit.

In London, several theatres like The Old Vic, The Royal Court, The Almeida and The Donmar, among others, are starting to put some of their productions online. Thoughts?
Online arts experiences will never be able to substitute for the real thing, but "free samples" can be a powerful tool in educating people and marketing the arts. The Metropolitan Opera is the most prominent U.S. example of a major arts organization distributing its work more widely through live performance feeds to movie theatres nationwide.

Ten years ago, when I was on the Executive Committee of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT), I pushed for our collective bargaining agreement with Actors Equity, the theatre actors union, to loosen up its highly restrictive rules regarding broadcast and internet use, which they did not agree to at that time. It sounds like British Actors Equity has a more visionary attitude, and while I believe that American Equity has made a number of rule changes, I think there is still more that can be done. It's critical to stemming the decline of theatre audiences.

List your five favorite artists (of any medium) and tell us why you love them.
Stephen Sondheim - When I attended the original production of his musical COMPANY on Broadway, it changed my entire concept of musical theatre. In a Sondheim musical, the beauty of his songs seems entirely wedded to their context, but when you hear them outside of their milieu they gain new life in surprising ways. He's the apotheosis of the American musical theatre--but I also have to admit my guilty pleasure of listening to Alan Chapman's spot-on satirical song, "Everybody Wants to be Sondheim--But Me!"

James Joyce- I make it a point to re-read Dubliners every couple of years. These stories of everyday people in turn of the century Ireland are amazingly taut yet rich with detail. Joyce's "epiphanies," the pathetic realizations of his protagonists in these stories, hit you like an unexpected left hook, particularly in the brilliant concluding tale, "The Dead." Ulysses has no peer as the turning point in modern fiction, and Finnegan's Wake deconstructs prose to its poetic origins.

Shakespeare - To me, it all begins and ends with the Bard. And beyond his drama, is thee any poem more romantic than Sonnet XVIII?

Suzanne Vega - The urbane, cosmopolitan singer-songwriter can be scathing, witty, detached or empathetic while plying her tunes and keeping a beat that ranges from folk to pop to metallic rock. Her latest album demonstrates unequivocally that she is still at the top of her form. I can listen to her songs every day--and do, as I work out to them.

Diane Arbus - Even seemingly normal people appear disturbed in the world of Diane Arbus, whose black and white only portraits capture every blemish of America in the 1960s. I first saw the Museum of Modern Art retrospective of her work a year after her suicide in 1971, and 35 years later saw the major touring exhibition of her work when it was at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

As the County's Official Arts Cheerleader, share a few thoughts on why the Arts are important to you and why people should get their butts off the couch and becomes patrons.
I'm a dyed-in-the-wool "art for art's sake" guy.

At a recent visioning retreat of the California Arts Advocates, there was discussion about the much-touted "economic impact" approach to advocating for the arts; i.e. that the arts transform urban blight, create jobs, fill restaurants and hotels, produce gobs of tax revenues, etc. But one of the keynote speakers, Arlene Goldbard, lambasted us for adopting that disingenuous argument and abandoning the essential truth that a civilized society demands a healthy arts community, support for which is a perfectly legitimate use of tax funds.

That is what I believe, but it's my job to use whatever argument resonates with my particular audience. When Assembly Member Jim Silva (R-Huntington Beach) voted yes for the state arts bill this spring, he spoke in Committee about the economic impact of the arts. But when our OC arts delegation had met with him a few weeks prior, he told us the story of how learning a musical instrument when he was a kid had changed his life. I believe it was the latter that really motivated him to vote for the arts, but he knew his audience needed to hear economic facts and figures. He was the only Republican who voted for the bill and it was a courageous act.

As for the general public, sometimes you just have to tell them "try it, you'll like it."

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