Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center founder Rick Conkey has transformed a beloved locale into a contemporary space where the community can gather to experience all things artistic—and, in doing so, fulfill the dream of another.
By Ashley Ryan
If you ask Rick Conkey what his greatest passion is, you’re likely to get two answers: tennis and the arts. After starting out as a player, transitioning to coaching and traveling across Europe for the sport, he returned home to Laguna in the late 1990s to build up the local tennis scene. Now stepping down from as coach to volunteer coach at Laguna Beach High School (though still leading summer camps through the city each year), Conkey has turned his sights on the arts.
His latest venture, the Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center, is actually a few years in the making. The concept was the result of Conkey taking over the BC Space Gallery when owner Mark Chamberlain passed away in 2018, with the LBCAC honoring the late “artivist,” whose goal was to impact the community through the arts—a vision Conkey shares.
“The arts are key to effecting positive change,” he says. “The LBCAC wants to demonstrate why Laguna Beach—a town largely founded as an artist colony—is the perfect place to start making that positive change and, simultaneously, offer Laguna up as an example to communities everywhere.”
In 2020, Conkey took over an additional downstairs space that increased the LBCAC’s size and capacity. Other changes were made as well, in an effort to repurpose outdated elements, such as a film developing, to fit the needs of the contemporary cultural center. The remodel also included higher walls for art installations, improved lighting, a wider performance space, a high-definition sound system, new seating, a projector and digital displays; and a combination office/green room.
With these updates, the center is well-suited to host everything from intimate performances to comedy shows, theatrical productions, special events and more. “I feel the building chose me,” Conkey notes. “Really, it’s quite magical. Mark Chamberlain and I were friends. I came to several of his annual solstice events and, … acoustically, it was by far the best venue in town.”
Although the LBCAC has already screened movies, showcased live music and dance performances, and held a number of events for the public, it’s really just getting started, and Conkey has big plans for the future. “We are working to create a community of optimists and artivists—an expanded one beyond just Laguna Beach,” he adds. “As our name implies, we are a cultural center and we aim to highlight all aspects of culture, to not just entertain but to educate, enlighten and evoke curiosity.”
Get involved by attending an upcoming event, volunteering at or donating to the LBCAC by visiting lbculturalartscenter.org.
Explore creativity in a new way with the Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center’s live performances, TV channel and music school.
Live on Stage
It’s been over a decade since Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center founder Rick Conkey started organizing community concerts, and he now has plenty of experience. This has come in handy when seeking out local, regional, national and even international artists to perform at the center. “We want to bring attention to artists that can inspire and harness the energy needed to drive positive change within our community,” he says. Live music at the venue typically takes place on the John Gardiner Stage while dance performances are held on a wooden floor. But the fun doesn’t end there, as the LBCAC has also played host to poetry readings, arthouse cinema screenings, comedy nights, art exhibitions, and shows in collaboration with Bare Bones Theatre. “We’ve had so many wonderful acts and artists showcased, but the recent celebration of life and music for the late, great Dee Miner of The Black Tongued Bells was especially memorable,” Conkey notes.
Something that remains important to Conkey is adding aspects of learning into the activities that take place at LBCAC. “Everything we present contains educational elements,” he explains, citing the center’s Juneteenth celebration as one of the events that encouraged learning. “… Guests who knew little about the holiday were intrigued to learn the different ways families and neighbors gather together to celebrate this momentous time in U.S. history.” Presenters and speakers helped round out the experience. Still another way that education is presenting itself at the center is through the LBCAC School of Music. Recently launched, this program is a joint effort between Conkey and Ray Weston, a British musician with more than 30 years of experience in the industry. Classes are being led by local favorite Jason Feddy, who is teaching songwriting; James Clay Garrison, who is giving lessons on guitar, bass and ukulele; Judy Ann Davila, who specializes in vocals and singing; and more.
Because the center opened to the public right at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Conkey and his team had to get creative quickly. One aspect of this was the launch of the center’s community broadcast channel, LBCAC-TV, which is dedicated to sharing stories about Orange County artists. The streaming station kicked off with a flagship show called “Anything Goes Happy Hour,” hosted by Conkey himself, where guests such as David Kizziar, Rick Graves and Tom Lamb have been interviewed. And the channel has expanded, now filming shows such as “Laguna Uke” with ukulele player Tom Joliet, “Local Legends” with the Kalama brothers and a skimboarding show called “The Finless Forum.” Also in the works is “Opera Reimagined,” which will feature the self-proclaimed Laguna Tenor, Rick Weber. In addition to the presentations themselves, the channel will feature relevant advertising for products from which Lagunans could benefit, but that aren’t yet available in town, such as biodegradable trash bags.