Although some who live outside of (and even some who live in) Long Beach may have a pessimistic view of the arts scene here, Victoria Bryan knows the truth about this city– that, on any given weekend, there can be so much going on that it’s impossible to do it all.
The newly appointed executive director of the Arts Council for Long Beach recently spent her first weekend in her new position feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the activities going on around her– and she’s quite pleased about it.
“This weekend, I’ve been out and about a lot,” she said Monday morning. “I’m always out, but I’m particularly aware of it [now that] this is my first weekend as the executive director.”
On Friday evening, she attended a studio-warming and was excited to notice a number of new artist studios opening up nearby, on the corner of Broadway and Long Beach Boulevard.
“Then on Saturday– the excitement of so many things, I couldn’t go to everything I wanted to see,” she said. “I went to Bixby Park to the Green Prize Festival– just fantastic! We had a couple of grantees from our micro-grant program in there– Squeeze [Art Collective] and Mixt [Media Arts]– they were a part of that festival. Artists like Margie Darrow were connected into Squeeze. So, a wonderful showing– lovely mix of the arts and ecology and community.”
Then Bryan headed slightly north to 624 Pacific Avenue to see the musical-theatrical group Riot Stage perform at the MADhouse. She then made her way to The Collaborative gallery, which is run by the Arts Council, for the opening of the exhibit Distant Parallels, a project that the Council has coordinated with the Museum of Latin-American Art. Before long though, she was back at the MADhouse, to catch the end of that performance.
“There’s just so much going on,” Bryan said. “Even though I know it, when you actually have a weekend that is that packed full of exciting events and know that you’re missing out on a great number more, it really tells me how exciting our arts and cultural scene is. So, I see it with new eyes now that I’ve started this job, and I realize that it has grown so much, and in so many different areas and different ways, and there’s a lovely mixing– I don’t feel like arts and culture are being separated or marginalized as they have been in the past. We’re so much more fluid now, with arts and culture being a part of the green movement and working together on things, which, to me, is such an exciting direction.”
Bryan, who had served as a board member for the Arts Council before assuming her current position, said that, since the arts scene here is thriving so well, individuals who are participating in it are often only cognizant of one aspect of it.
“So, I see this growth, and now there’s so much going on that most of us only know a little piece of it, you know? We know our own little piece,” she said. “So I’m very interested in how we can kind of take stock of everything that is happening, has been growing up organically in our communities, and really bring everybody up to speed on that. That’s how it feels to me– that I know, as somebody who’s interested in the arts, I don’t know everything that’s going on, and that’s really exciting, to think that we’ve got a city with that much vibrancy in our arts and culture, and that really fits in with the Arts Council’s future direction.”
The organization has just completed an 18-month period of strategic planning, during which it had to take stock of who they are and where they are, Bryan said. She indicated that it had once been a more traditional sort of arts council, one that had served as more of a “pass-through organization” for grants that were distributed to artists and other arts institutions. But that was when the economy was still strong.
“Then, of course, the bottom fell out, when our budget was reduced, as everybody’s budget was reduced, in the hard times,” Bryan said. “So, I have to say that, after that, we spent some time kind of just sustaining and started to think, ‘Where do we go from here? If we are no longer what we used to be, how do we bring value to our community? How do the arts add into what Long Beach is about and where it is going?’ So that’s what led us into an extended strategic-planning period, and we started that by asking questions, which, I think, is always the right way to start.”
Bryan explained that the Arts Council sought feedback from individuals in various sectors, such as those in business, education and entertainment, as well as people who work in the arts.
“To be honest, the answers were not always easy to hear,” she said. “Some people didn’t really know what the Arts Council was doing. Eeek! Not good. Some people did think they knew and didn’t think much of it. That’s not good to hear either. Some of that is perception. Some of that is [that] we haven’t really done a good job of letting people know what it is we think we’re doing. And some of it was because, frankly, we were still, really, trying to redefine our mission and our vision. So– great time for strategic planning.”
What came of those public-input sessions and planning periods was the Arts Council’s new direction: to function as an advocate, a promoter, an educator and a facilitator for the whole arts and cultural sector for Long Beach. With this new direction, the organization doesn’t want to just be one that increases or improves the art scene, which, Bryan concedes, are great objectives, but one that helps Long Beach become a city that has the arts as its heart.
“When you think of the great cities of the world, one thing they share in common, going back in history, are these strengths of their arts and culture,” Bryan said.
Bryan should know, having lived in several international cities that span the globe from England to China, Ireland and Iran.
“I was born in London, but I actually grew up in Hong Kong,” she said. “My father got a job there when I was 7. So my memories of being involved in the arts are from Hong Kong. I was involved in theatre; there was an international community theatre company, and we did all kinds of productions. I always loved all of the arts– drawing, painting, reading– but my primary memories are of starting in theatre when I was a kid in Hong Kong.”
She later spent six years working in educational-television production in Tehran, Iran, and a year as head of the prop department at the Abbey Theatre, in Dublin, Ireland, coming to the United States in 1978 to travel around the country.
“Two of us came to America at the same time,” she said. “We had an idea for starting a theatre company. We visited friends all around the country and found that Southern California, at that time, held so much promise for new ideas because it was a time of such expansion with developers as well as tech companies. So many people were moving into Southern California. So, having literally looked all around the country by visiting friends who had also made that relocation back to the States because my partner in the venture, Don Laffoon, and I had lived in Iran for many years and, out of our work there– Don in theatre, me in educational television– we had this idea for a theatre company, so we toured America, looking for a place to start up something new, and found our home, actually in Laguna Beach in Orange County.”
Though she fostered an appreciation for Laguna’s picturesqueness, there seemed to be something more compelling calling to her from a bit farther north up the California coast.
“So, [we] lived there for some time, but as I got to know the area– Laguna is beautiful, don’t get me wrong, I love Laguna, but, the more I got to know Long Beach, there’s a wonderful sense of diversity and excitement in our community, all these different communities within a city, the more urban feeling, I moved out here in ‘85 just because I was very excited about Long Beach. It was really a place [where] I wanted to live.”
In next week’s issue, the Signal Tribune will delve more into Bryan’s background and her road to becoming executive director of the City of Long Beach’s arts agency.