FROM her office, Esther Wachtel can watch the sun set over the most prodigious piece of arts real estate this side of Lincoln Center. The Los Angeles Music Center, the three-theater complex Ms. Wachtel watches over as president, will mark its 25th anniversary Sept. 23 and 24 with fireworks, dinners, and galas. And it has good reason to celebrate.
The Center is now home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Joffrey Ballet, the Ahmanson Theatre and Mark Taper Forum, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and the new Los Angeles Music Center Opera. Back in the early '60s, this city, the ``entertainment capital of the world,'' was struggling to raise the $20 million needed to launch the Center.
``When this site was dedicated ..., it was truly a cultural oasis in an artistic desert,'' says Wachtel. Enter Dorothy Chandler with a fund-raising effort that won her a cover picture on Time magazine and that earned the Big Orange a seal of true civility.
``The Los Angeles Music Center is the major piece of cultural infrastructure of L.A., without which none of the growth we've seen in the past 25 years would've happened,'' says Aldolfo Nodal, general manager of the city's Cultural Affairs Department. ``There wouldn't have been the audiences, the attitudes, nor the philanthropic support for everything that has happened since.''
The New York Times goes even further, pointing to the Center as ``the most powerful single catalyst in the rebirth of L.A.''
Wachtel and other community leaders say the Center has also been the key to the architectural and economic renaissance of a downtown area that started with the towering ARCO headquarters next door.
Since the Chandler temple was erected on the site atop Bunker Hill, an impressive array of cultural institutions have been added to the area: the Los Angeles County Museum, opened in 1965 and expanded twice since then; the Los Angeles Theater Center's ``alternative'' four-theater complex, opened in 1985; the Orange County Performing Arts Center, completed in 1986; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, unveiled in 1987.
Things had changed so much that by last year Newsweek magazine could declare: ``To a widening international circle of contemporary artists, dealers, and collectors, Los Angeles is the new place to be.''
Opened five years after New York's Lincoln Center and seven years before Washington's Kennedy Center, the Music Center has a unique organizational structure. Dorothy Chandler, who was a member of the University of California Board of Regents, modeled the organization after the university. Each body under the Music Center umbrella answers to its own board, and each is embraced by the Music Center Board, which oversees funding, marketing, and overall artistic direction.
``It is the model arts organization of its kind in the country,'' says Don Marinelli, professor of arts management at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg. ``It's cross-discipline pollenization is unique,'' he adds, referring to the fact that the five groups share not only space but personnel, inspiration, funding, artistic planning, marketing, development, and outreach.
Wachtel maintains, ``An arts organization is a very special thing, and creative people need a great deal of individual freedom. No matter how much money we raise, no matter what our government relations are, we (administrators) cannot do what our artists do. They are supreme here and have to be given tremendous freedom in order to create.''
Anniversary celebrations, underway since the first of the year, will culminate in the galas this month and more festivities Dec. 6.
It was on Dec. 7, 1964, when Dorothy ``Buffum'' Chandler, wife of Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler and mother of its current executive committee chairman, Otis Chandler, culminated a $20 million fund drive with the opening of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Three city bond issues had been defeated in trying to fund the complex. Undaunted, Mrs. Chandler coalesced support in a memorable fund-raising drive.
The Music Center's latest addition is scheduled to open in 1994: the new $50 Disney Hall, which will be the home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. With the departure of the Philharmonic freeing up a lot of time at the 2,000-seat Pavilion, and with the added 2,000 seats at Disney Hall, Wachtel says, ``I don't have any concern about filling all the seats, but there is a challenge to keep all the productions world-class,'' she says.
Listing the hurdles the Music Center must now jump, she points out competition from the nearby Orange County Performing Arts Center, which has made ticket sales softer since its opening three years ago. And there's no doubt that the Los Angeles Theater Center's steady stream of first-rate fare provides theatergoers with alternatives they didn't have five years ago. The Civic Light Opera, once quite popular locally, abandoned its berth here not along ago because of financial problems. The Philharmonic will likely face two years of artistic drift, as conductor Andre Previn, who recently announced his resignation because of ``artistic differences'' with the management, winds down his involvement, and the newly appointed Finnish conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, prepares to take the reins fulltime in 1992.
Thanks to tremendous population growth and a staff of 8,000 volunteers who close the $15 million gap between expenditures and receipts, the center enjoys financial solvency. But that's only part of the success story. There is evidence of a cutting-edge creativity that grows from the city's ethnic diversity.
Wachtel cites two recent Music Center productions: ``Sansei'' was created by the popular Japanese rock-fusion group ``Hiroshima.'' With support from an organization known as Asian-American Friends of Mark Taper Forum, ``Sansei'' explored what life is like in America for third-generation Japanese. Another work, ``Bokan,'' dealt with the experience of Hispanic immigrant children.
In all such endeavors, the sharing nature of the Music Center is not just talk. For example, Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum, directed ``Midsummer Night's Dream'' for the Music Center Opera. He also presented a Tom Stoppard play that featured the Philharmonic.
``The Music Center was formed with good ol' Western can-do spirit,'' says Bob Reid, director of the California Arts Council in Sacramento, who says the locus of culture has shifted over the last 25 years from San Francisco to L.A. He believes there has been a national change too. The shift is more dramatically occurring from New York to L.A.'' he says. ``But it is as yet under-recognized....''