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Soul of the City part VI
WRITTEN BY :   Lawrence Christon

DOWNEY – For anyone just tuning into this series on the Downey zeitgeist, one phrase should cover it all: Is there life after high school?

Of course there is, but mainly as an echo of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s phrase, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Your typical Downey first act has involved school, pizza and burger joints, parties, cars, (more recently) hanging around the Krikorian and late nights checking out the bands at the Epic Lounge. Then there’s the jump to the third act, where you wake up in the middle of a balance and mobility class at the Barbara J. Riley Community and Senior Center, you look around at your group whose combined ages would pre-date the fall of the Roman Empire, and you wonder, What happened? Where did it all go?

Cramped downtown Downey Avenue offers an unwitting visual metaphor. The west side corner of 2nd street is dominated by Porto’s parking structure, across from Bastards BBQ. The west side of 3rd is dominated by two mortuaries. One corner says Eat; the other says Die.

One of the purposes of this series is to suggest that art in all its manifestations, as opposed to mere entertainment, is a crucial element in the life of a city, even a nation. It gives it a root, an identity, an intelligentsia, a shared spirit, an openness to possibility. It gives energy and life and self-reflection. And that’s precisely what the city has been losing as Downey’s leadership generically parcels the city slowly away en route to becoming West Covina.

Ironically, among Downey’s claims to step-up city fame, along with homes, schools and safety, has been its cultural institutions. Virtually none of Downey’s surrounding communities have had a professional symphony, a civic light opera and a fulltime art museum thriving at the same time. There was also a children’s theater so well regarded that the Downey Civic Theatre was built in part to house it. But that’s all becoming a lost second act too. The art museum is shuttered, the children’s theater is long gone, the DCLO has closed, and the symphony is struggling to stay alive with a minimal three-concert season.

Part of that loss is from a city leadership that doesn’t have the visceral sense of cultural engagement it once had, and is therefore, beyond lip service, indifferent to what culture means to a place (the addition of Roger Brossmer and Alex Saab to the city council is beginning to change that).

Another part is generational. The young people who started up the symphony and the museum and the musical theater were mostly the same age then as the thirtysomethings who now look across a mysterious scorched-earth divide and wonder, How can we salvage the best of the past and create our own future? Why do we need to pay $96,000 to someone in Tennessee to tell us who we are with a signature brand? Does a logo define us?

In a surprisingly short time, just three years or so, a grassroots arts scene has begun to crop up, mostly made up of beginners or people whose work is untested by exposure and opinion. Two ambitious organizations have formed to help them. The Stay Gallery wants to give them a place to show and play. The Downey Arts Coalition wants to get the word out about them and put them in touch with each other, and the public, which it does through a splendid website. Both groups are showing early success. But before we start dropping victory balloons and streamers in celebration of Downey’s new renaissance, which some are already doing, let’s try and take a look at what’s out there in the night. We’ve already discussed Stay. Now let’s check out the DAC.

“Lana and I wear two hats,” says Andrew Wahlquist, president of the Downey Arts Coalition (Lana is Lana Joy Wahlquist, Andrew’s wife). The two-hat metaphor is a good one. The history and achievement of what you might call the white one began when around 2010 Andrew started inviting a small group of people to his house-they’d been meeting outdoors in Furman Park– to talk about bringing some kind of art scene to a town that was feeling more and more duddy (he was born and raised in Downey).

Three years later Wahlquist is the go-to guy when the city wants to connect with what arts community is out there, or what people with cultural aspirations want to propose. He’s the face of the Downey Arts Coalition, its most energetic organizer and proselytizer. He’s demonstrated impressive managerial talent. His board and membership can credit themselves for, among other events, Mari’s Art on the Vine, Make Music Downey, Lorine Parks’ fine Poetry reading series, Roy Anthony Shabla’s “View From the Edge” lecture series on art, staged readings, a Sunday film series at the Epic Lounge, and a “State of the Art” mini-convention that brought local arts groups together from around the Southeast region and the San Gabriel Valley. Remarkable, you’d have to agree.

Let’s look at the other hat, which is by no means black, but does have some holes in it.

I first met Wahlquist in 2010, where we had a pleasant chat over a cup of coffee. Among other things, he described himself as a filmmaker. When I asked about that, he replied, “A student film.” I made a mental note: a student film doesn’t make you a filmmaker if you don’t go on to make more, and he hasn’t. After that, I heard from him a few times. He sets up a dynamic where he tries to make you feel answerable to him somehow. I began to wonder, “Who is this guy?’ A self-appointed spokesman for the arts who, when queried, admits he doesn’t really know much about them (he still does this, yet people still listen to him). A certain low-key, soft-spoken, almost shaggy demeanor conceals a deceptive aggression. If he wants to know something, he’ll call you on a Saturday night, unmindful that you might be hosting a dinner party, or a more intimate someone.

Other things struck me. I found him devious—digging up questionable facts about the DCLO, for example, and having other people present them. He wants to maneuver politically while appearing above politics. Well, you say, so what? That’s the way it works. The DAC has succeeded so well that questioning motives seems petty and beside the point.

But every now and then you’ll hear something so preposterous that you have to do a double take to check if you’d heard or read right. “I trend towards puffery,” he e-mailed me, not realizing that puffery is a nice word for b.s. He trumpets Lana as “Our performance guru.” Given the infinitely vast world of dance, music, theater, movies and TV that’s out there, this is a terrible burden to place on someone who’s only done a few small acting roles and directed a church play. He states the two of them want to create a professional theater that would become “a regional player” and might, if the circumstance is right, resurrect the Downey Civic Light Opera. This is, to put it mildly, unrealistic.

Why is any of this important? Because it speaks of judgment. Anyone who assumes a leadership in an arts organization must have a sense of critical discernment, of knowledge of history and who’s who out there. Nobody wants to admit it, but the Art on the Vine series was mostly dreadful art. The Make Music Downey event worked because the DAC didn’t pretend that it was anything more than a six-venue, come one, come all afternoon fest. You can’t complain if the music wasn’t great. Artistically speaking, the aim was modest.

Generally speaking, so are the DAC’s goals of finding and bringing out artists in Downey and the Southeast region, and creating dialogues with the city. And you can only judge someone by what they set out to do. But a dubious vibe has already set in where a core group is becoming a coterie of acolytes who view any skepticism as shocking heresy. I’d like to hear more from Carolina Del Toro, who’s had a career as a professional photographer. I’d like to see more authority given to Donald Marshall, who’s a Harvard grad, a former professor of English literature at Pepperdine University, and someone who’s been around long enough to see the shape of things.

Outfits like the DAC share one thing with the life of the individual artist. Work hard for a long time, and somewhere along the line you’re going to get your shot. A serious audience is going to show up for a hard look at what you’ve got to offer. If you connect, you’re on your way to bigger things. If they turn away, you’ll have learned the hard way that it’s what you don’t know that kills you.

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Published: Aug. 1, 2013 – Volume 12 – Issue 16



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