PGAC celebrates 40th birthday, weathers economic storms.

Art Denizens: PGAC director Joan Jeffers McCleary describes herself as a liaison between artists, community and the board.

On a Friday afternoon, a little after quitting time, Joan Jeffers McCleary (distant relation to Robinson Jeffers) sits in the second-story office of the Pacific Grove Art Center and reminisces – to the squalls of seagulls somewhere above the open window – about past exhibitions. The gracious PGAC director is joined, intermittently, by Art Center loyalists like artist Connie Pearlstein, an unofficial historian who has kept one of the center’s studios for 20 years, Jane Flury, a PGAC board of directors VP who also serves as office assistant, and artist John McCleary, also a board member, who’s been married to Joan for 23 years.

“We have appetizers and wine and a beach waiting for us,” he tells her.

John wants to take his wife on a picnic, but Joan is, once again, giving herself to the job of running and promoting one of the county’s most pre-eminent art institutions.

Housed in Lighthouse Avenue’s historic Proctor-and-Quintel-constructed building (commissioned by developer T.A. Work, whose son deeded his adobe home, La Mirada, to the Monterey Museum of Art), the PGAC was founded in 1969 to be an axis of art in the community, a charge it’s upheld for 40 years.

They celebrate the milestone with a party this Saturday, with performances by children’s author and singer Nancy Raven, the Monterey All-Star Band, the Rollin’ Tumblin’ Blues Review and others. Artist studios will be open during the party, which goes until 10pm and includes hors d’oeuvres and “refreshments,” discreet code for wine in the once-dry Methodist town (Flury says the PGAC’s grand opening on July 1969 broke the 94-year ban on alcohol).

Though the center hosts concerts, lectures, classes and hootenannies, art is king. The close-knit group in the office complement each other’s recollections about past art shows, like the Artist Response to 9/11, which opened close on the heels of the terrorist attacks.

“All [the works were] redirected to peace and reconciliation,” says John. “Except one.”

Joan describes the painting: an ethnically mixed group of kids at the bottom, with bombs falling on them from above – bombs painted red, white and blue.

“The FBI came,” she says. “Guys in suits. They were going to all kinds of museums. They questioned the artist.” And the PGAC’s 2001 binder of records mysteriously vanished. Pearlstein’s genteel face, framed by a floral gardening hat, lights up when talking about Meredith Mullins’ June 2005 solo show, In a Paris Moment, based on the photographer’s book of the same name.

“It was a show of [more than 60] photos,” says Pearlstein, “with [recorded] sounds of Paris, text on the wall, digital banners – the opening was spectacular.”

That multi-media sensory immersion exhibit was followed by the debut of a young and now-prominent art talent – Regis Silva from Brazil.

“It was huge,” says Pearlstein, who doesn’t seem prone to hyperbole. “Everything worked.”

A 1999 photography exhibition enlisted “all” the Weston clan – Edward, Chandler, Brett, Neil, Kim, Paulette – for Cole Weston’s 80th birthday. The show, Weston: A Family’s Legacy, drew 3,500 people in one month.

Joan recalls that during a September 2006, Hurricane Katrina Blues show of displaced New Orleans artists, PGAC members put up the visiting artists in their homes. And the 2006 Big Sur Arts Initiative group exhibit attracted a “record-breaking” 1,200 people at the opening reception alone.

The 10,000 square-foot PGAC is comprised of 16 below-market artist studios, two classrooms, high ceilings crowned with skylights and four galleries, including a former Mason meeting hall, a gallery that doubles as Ballet Fantasque’s dance studio, and two hallways.

Opening receptions of new works, which rotate every seven weeks, draw about 600 people. They’re energetic, civilized affairs, flush with artists, fans and groups like the Monterey County Artists Equity and Central Coast Art Association attending. The city expands on the revelries, smartly piggybacking their Wine, Art & Music Walk onto the openings.

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The city isn’t the only one attracted. Artist Marale Childs waited seven years on a list to get a studio; she’s been there six years since, next to Joan and Jane Flury’s office – hers is one of two in which the window is not covered.

“The biggest thing is light,” she says. “No way I would cut off a light source.” Visitors can gaze at her meticulous acrylic paintings of blue herons, white egrets, native and exotic plants, “a philosophical and ecological symposium,” as she calls them – part of a 40-year body of work she’s composing into her forthcoming book, Details.

Though PGAC’s helm sits in capable and dedicated hands – they were named 2009 Nonprofit of the Year by the P.G. Chamber of Commerce – the rough waters of the economy are rocking the ship.

“We won’t get two – maybe three – of our major grants; we’ve received lovely rejection letters,” Joan says sweetly. Much funding comes from membership dues, donations and grants, supplemented by two annual shows – The Patron’s Show and “Tiny Treasures.”

Currently in the midst of re-organizing the center’s records and paperwork, Joan, a stickler for detail, has uncovered new accolades about her beloved institution that bodes well for their continued voyage.

“We won a string of [Weekly] Best Ofs in the ’90s,” she says. “I didn’t know that.”

PACIFIC GROVE ART CENTER’S 40TH ANNIVERSARY is 4-10pm Saturday, Aug. 15, at 568 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove. Free; donations appreciated. 375-2208,

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