By Barbara McMurray, Special to the Independent
Rick Conkey is a man on a mission to alleviate your fears through art. His unflinching approach is rooted in the belief in a curiosity, community building, and a hunger for the challenging, the avant-garde, and the eyebrow-raising, even in Laguna’s occasionally staid, crowd-pleasing art scene. His idea is not new, just refreshed and revitalized with a quiver of mediums, some of which barely existed a few decades ago.
Conkey is carrying on Laguna Beach’s history as a free-thinking art colony with his Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center. Nestled on the second floor of a 1920 Forest Avenue building just off Coast Highway, the LBCAC has been refurbished. It sports a freshly painted, expanded 49-seat theater, a lobby, office space, and stylish, updated bathrooms. From its smart facelift and Conkey’s inventiveness—plus a chunk of his earnings from private tennis lessons—come unpredictable artistic offerings that include live music, opera, plays, visual art and photo exhibitions, arthouse films, and a livestream channel, with more on deck for the artistic smorgasbord as support grows. The LBCAC occupies the 2,400-square-foot space formerly used by the BC Space, which for 45 years served as the hub of Laguna’s funky underground art scene, a gallery and performance space founded by local art photographers Jerry Burchfield (“B”) and Mark Chamberlain (“C”). A third major player in the creative venue was poet John Gardiner. The three are deceased, but their successor Conkey aims to honor their vision of pushing boundaries and presenting provocative, emotionally engaging ideas through art.
A glance at the center’s roster of exhibitions and events in the coming weeks is evidence of LBCAC’s ambitious range: an exhibition by visual artists Jorg Dubin, Carrie Zeller, and Tom Lamb, San Clemente-based Kalama Brothers’ Hawaiian music, Bare Bones Theater Group’s “Shakespeare’s Fool” with musician Jason Feddy, his wife and actor Ava Burton, and friends riffing on The Bard on Jan. 29, a Valentine’s Day-centered evening of opera on Feb. 5, musician James Clay Garrison and friends, singer-musician Beth Wood, and a new dramatic work by local playwright Lojo Simon on Feb. 22. Among the center’s eclectic offerings of the past year, COVID-19 notwithstanding, guests experienced a concert by reggae legend Pato Banton, “The Tin Drum,” a 1979 German film that was banned in Oklahoma, and a French Open watch party.
The center is a venue for celebrations that focus on artists and creativity: New Year’s Eve, Day of the Dead, a signature Bluewater Music Festival and ancillary beach cleanup, and community-serving benefit concerts. The space is available for event rental.
“We look to be an accessible and affordable epicenter for art by showcasing leading-edge, experiential art that drives positive change,” said Conkey. “Positive change begins with creating a dialogue that spurs a deeper understanding of things that we may not fully grasp or may even fear. If we address our ignorance with increased knowledge, these fears can disappear and leave us with a higher consciousness brought to us through art.”
By day Laguna Beach High School’s tennis coach, Conkey is a passionate music fan. His single mother, a Tustin high school teacher, also played the Spanish guitar, an instrument his brother, an art historian, played professionally.
Conkey’s kinetic energy and dreams of a venue that nurtures a decidedly “Laguna” artistic experience are compelling. He has assembled an arts-savvy board of directors and attracted many donors to the nonprofit he established last year. His hope is that word will spread about Laguna’s active nucleus for diverse artistic offerings.
Currently, all attendees must show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test. Face masks are required inside the Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center. For more information and tickets visit lbculturalartscenter.org.