PRINT October 2003


the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater

HERE’S A TALL TALE about a tall tale: Walt Disney’s body—allegedly suspended in cryogenic slumber—is stashed somewhere on the campus of the California Institute of the Arts. Apocryphal? Almost certainly. But the rumor’s tenacity among generations of students at the Valencia, California, art school he helped found in 1961 indicates how large the Disney legend still looms. The latest chapter in the history of the partnership begins in mid-November with the opening of the school’s new performance and gallery outpost, the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, or REDCAT, in downtown Los Angeles.

REDCAT occupies the southwest corner of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, at Second and Hope Streets. Gehry’s facade of colossal stainless-steel chevrons fronts the hall and links to a swoop of steel ribbon crowning REDCAT’s separate entrance. When both facilities open next month, they will be taking their places along a newly consolidated Grand Avenue “cultural corridor” that also includes MoCA and the Music Center. The renewal of downtown LA as a pivotal business district over the past two decades has been accompanied and bolstered by municipal support for cultural institutions there; REDCAT will boost this revitalization, its advocates maintain, as the centralized, multidisciplinary, high-tech art venue that Tinseltown has lacked until now.

The first phase of the concert hall’s troubled, stop-and-start progress was already complete when REDCAT joined the building. Disney board vice chairman and CalArts trustee Roy E. Disney (Walt’s nephew) knew that university president Steven D. Lavine had been seeking an urban annex for CalArts, which is forty-five minutes northwest of LA, for ten years. Student and faculty work, as well as that by some three hundred artists who visit the school yearly (often on extended residencies), rarely made it downtown to wider audiences. When stalled con- struction on the hall resumed in 1999, $5 million of the $25 million pledged for it by the Disney Company was earmarked for a performance space and gallery to be operated by the university and named for Roy Disney’s parents. He provided another $5 million, CalArts stepped up fund-raising, and several floors of a garage, already completed under the concert hall, were blasted away to make room for the space. Some $21 million in construction costs later, REDCAT is ready.

Though attracting visitors downtown for a reason other than jury duty is easier than it was ten years ago, REDCAT executive director Mark C. Murphy still faces challenges. Fresh to the city after seventeen years at Seattle’s alternative performance space On the Boards, Murphy hopes to strengthen LA’s famously disparate, if vibrant, artistic communities. Complementing the efforts of local organizations such as LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) and UCLA Live (the school’s performing-arts series), the facility, as he sees it, will combine the Kunsthalle element of the Walker in Minneapolis or the Wexner in Columbus, Ohio, with the discipline-blurring offerings of New York’s Kitchen or Brooklyn Academy of Music. Murphy emphasizes that the venue is not merely a CalArts vanity showcase and plans to divide programming among work by university faculty and visitors (which will necessitate negotiating the interests of six deans), Los Angeles–area artists, and touring companies. Juggling competing agendas and raising the artistic stakes may be a tall order, but at the very least REDCAT’s deluxe physical amenities make such ambitions seem viable.

Carpet and lighting fixtures had yet to be installed in July, but despite the drills and sawdust, the space looked impressive. One enters from the street (this being LA, a parking-garage entrance is also available) to find the box office and three thousand square feet of what gallery director and curator Eungie Joo describes as “a very big small gallery.” Joo, new to LA after curatorial stints at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and at Artists Space and Deitch Projects in New York, explains that her exhibition roster will mirror local demographics in its “mandate of particular attention to Latin America, the Pacific Rim, and Los Angeles.” REDCAT’s inaugural show, though, is of a more traditional stripe: One of the LA art world’s brightest lights, Ed Ruscha, will guest-curate a retrospective of work by one of its lesser-known stalwarts, Abstract Expressionist Emerson Woelffer (1914–2003). Woelffer was Ruscha’s teacher at Chouinard Art Institute (one of the institutions later incorporated into CalArts) and, as Ruscha says, “left his footprints” on generations of students there and at Otis College of Art & Design, including Larry Bell, Roy Dowell, Joe Goode, Dennis Hopper, and Allen Ruppersberg. Subsequent exhibitions will feature work by painter Mark Bradford and sculptor Glenn Kaino, both based in LA; the socially minded Danish collective Superflex; and Korean installation artists Hong-suk Gim and Kim Sora—a roster that reflects Joo’s interest in “emerging artists, as well as not-quite-midcareer artists.” She also anticipates a series of guest-curated, informal showings of local artists and partnerships with community arts centers.

Down the hall from the white cube is the black box. Here, it becomes clearer why Lavine calls REDCAT a “state-of-the-art machine for artmaking”; Gehry and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota have designed a playroom of AV fantasies. Its 7,140 square feet boast two floors of sound, lighting, and projection booths; eight hundred light circuits; and modular seating that can be configured for cabaret, proscenium, or in-the-round staging for an audience of up to three hundred. Sidewalls consist of hinged panels that rotate for either sound absorbency or surround sound—depending on which of the two sound systems is being used—and the entire room floats on seventy-two pneumatic pads that will prevent vibrations from the garage below and the hall above. The theater, like the gallery, is wired for fiber-optic technologies and on-site Webcasts, and it adjoins a capacious production office, dressing and green rooms, and a humidity-controlled storage area for instruments. A roomy café/bar and lobby area, all Gehry unfinished plywood, will accommodate discussion groups and seminars.

Hybridity is the watchword of the seventy performances Murphy has slated for REDCAT’s first four months. First on the lineup is dumb type, a Japanese performance octet, who will premiere a new example of their form of theater, dance, fragmented narrative, and video projection. Performances by the Mexican dance troupe Delfos Danza Contemporánea and cabaret performer Astrid Hadad are scheduled for later in the season, along with a collaboration between the London-based East Indian video performers motiroti and New York’s Builders Association. The space will also host the CalArts Dance Ensemble’s tribute concert to the late Nina Simone and film retrospectives of Chantal Akerman and animation pioneer Jules Engle. Several artists in residence at CalArts will make use of REDCAT; Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng, for example, plans to stage an opera based on the seventeenth-century play The Peach Blossom Fan, which he developed during a visit to the school.

Though REDCAT’s creators emphasize its uniqueness, the facility joins a growing trend of newly built, university-sponsored public art spaces, including the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College (another Gehry project) and MIT’s Center for Arts and Invention, scheduled to open in 2005. At REDCAT, CalArts’ bankroll—and Disney’s deep pockets—will allow for a staff of about a dozen people and permit free admission to its gallery and low ticket prices for performances. While another instance of the ongoing (and probably inexorable) entanglement of art institutions with corporate America, the REDCAT model offers hope that, in these continuing meager times for arts funding, academia may offer not only financial resources but a wellspring of new and innovative work. And perhaps even encourage the next Walt Disney—since it doesn’t look like the old one will be rejoining us anytime soon.

Lisa Pasquariello is managing editor of October.