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For the Love of Art

At home with Jordan and Sandra Laby, Ventura’s passionate benefactors of high culture.

By Mark Storer

Photo by Gaszton Gal

Crafted by the late painter and sculptor Len Poteshman, this ornate violin, part of the Laby’s home collection, was designed for the Ventura Music Festival. Max Karp’s enameled portraits of artists can be seen hanging in the background.

 

ordan and Sandra Laby had a vision for art in Ventura. The couple moved here in 1979 because they fell in love with the beauty of the place, and eventually built a home in the Keys that itself is a veritable showcase of local art. There are elaborate paintings filled with abstract and concrete images of Ventura, as well as sculptures of various kinds, not to mention picturesque Ventura Harbor and jetty views.

Their own experience living in Los Angeles, where they had the opportunity to attend shows, plays, and exhibits, developed into more than a pastime—it was a lifestyle.

“We’ve always had a passion for the arts,” said Jordan. “We love music and painting, acting and theater, all of it. And when we got here, we knew there were a lot of artists, but there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to see their work.”

The Labys’ relationship includes vigorous and healthy discussions about art. They interpret it, share it—even argue about it. When Jordan talks about the Rubicon Theatre he lights up. “We don’t know what we’d do without the Rubicon,” he said. “We go to see every show, and usually see it twice: once at the beginning and once at the end. Often the show changes over the run and you see so much.” He should know. The Rubicon has been one of the main focuses of the couple’s philanthropy.

“We’ve had major experiences with these people, these artists, in our lives, and I can’t think of anything better. It enriches us so much, it adds so much to our lives,” Sandra said.

The Labys moved to Ventura from Los Angeles, where Jordan worked as an inventor and entrepreneur and Sandra was a teacher and dancer. At 78, she still dances, even learning to do Argentine Tango and mastering the moves. Jordan invented an automatic pool cleaner that became the Polaris pool sweep, among other things including medical equipment. The couple invested in a number of buildings and industrial properties, and that work allowed them to start thinking about taking a leading role in the Ventura art scene.

“They didn’t have anything here,” said Sandra. “Back then, there was just nothing. But they did start the Ventura Music Festival 21 years ago,” she said. “The city was wonderful.” It was around that time that the Labys were asked to help put up the money for a production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Ventura Theater.

“We never did any of this alone; it was always in collaboration. They wanted to do a stage production, but they got the original actors,” said Sandra. “Ted Neely came out, and Carl Anderson, and that was such a wonderful production. It started it all.”

It may well have. That production was a nexus that built around the Ventura Music Festival and branched out into the Labys becoming involved in planting the Rubicon Theatre, the New West Symphony—a combination of the Ventura Orchestra and the Conejo Valley Orchestra, Camerata Pacifica in Santa Barbra, and others—and supporting a number of local artists. They even had a part in bringing the WAV (Working Artists Ventura), a downtown residence for artists, to fruition.

“We had our fingers in a little bit of all of it. We got in on all of it because we wanted the arts here,” said Sandra. “You have to remember that when we got here, it was ag and oil. There wasn’t a lot of art.”

Their fingers in all those areas led to the creation of the San Buenaventura Arts Foundation, a group whose mission was to support local art and provide a venue for it in Downtown Ventura. “We had committees set up, and surveys had been done. The land was going to be the parking lot off of Main Street by the Ventura Mission,” said Jordan.

There were to be two theaters, a 600-seat and a 200-seat venue. The Labys worked on the plan and raised money for it for more than 10 years. “But around 2007 and 2008, that’s when China started buying up concrete and steel and the prices tripled for those things,” Jordan said. “It just became clear that this wasn’t going to happen.”

But the couple doesn’t refer to the event as a failure. “The foundation still exists, and we did succeed in bringing the arts together and uniting all the various parties,” Jordan said. “We had a lot of help, a lot of very fine people have worked with us and brought artists and performers and all of it together to work toward having more art in Ventura and support each other. The city helped with that, and it was a really good thing.”

The San Buenaventura Arts Foundation is now the vehicle through which the Labys and a number of others donate to arts and artists around Ventura and Ojai, and is the backbone of a community that has transformed from a working-class beach town to a community where art is welcomed, celebrated, and patronized.

One of the things the Labys are proudest of is their collaboration with a group that brought the Harmony Project to Ventura. Dr. Margaret Martin had imported the idea from South America to Los Angeles, where musicians work with schools in poor neighborhoods to teach underserved children to play classical music and instruments.

“I asked Dr. Martin, ‘Could we do this in Ventura?’” said Sandra. “She’s such an optimist. She told us that we could, and we spent about three years putting it together.”

The Labys started the program at Sheridan Way School in Ventura, using donations to teach music appreciation in the second and third grades and provide instruments for the children. The program now has 150 students involved across four schools in the Ventura Unified School District. The program has won awards that include one from the President of the United States.

“It’s part of the New West Symphony now and they run it, which is just great,” said Sandra. “They hire teachers coming out of Cal State Northridge, there are nine of them now, and they teach part-time to get the kids learning to play in an orchestra.” Sandra fills with emotion when talking about it: “It’s changing these kids’ lives! It’s so wonderful.”

“That’s the thing,” said Jordan. “It’s really not about us. It’s about these kids and giving them a chance to change their lives.”

“That’s what life is about,” Sandra said. “When you come to the end, what do you have? You have the memory of these children, and you made a difference in their lives. And that’s such joy. That’s the real gift.”

The Laby List
Sandra and Jordan’s Top 12 Local Causes
Art City Studios
artcitystudios.com, 805.648.1690
Bell Arts Factory
bellartsfactory.org, 805.643.1960
Camerata Pacifica
cameratapacifica.org, 805.884.8410
Channel Islands Chamber Orchestra
cichamberorchestra.org
Focus on the Masters
focusonthemasters.com, 805.653.2501
Hearing is Believing
Rachel Flowers documentary, by Lorenzo DeStefano
rachelflowersfilm.com, 805.641.3845
New West Symphony / Harmony Project
newwestsymphony.org/education/harmony-project.php, 805.497.5800
Ojai Music Festival
ojaifestival.org, 805.646.2094
Rubicon Theatre
rubicontheatre.org, 805.667.2900
Ventura County Ballet
venturacountyballet.com, 805.648.2080
Ventura Music Festival
venturamusicfestival.org, 805.648.3146
WAV: Working Artists Ventura
wavartists.com, 805.641.0400

A mask collection acquired at the Ojai Music Festival’s outdoor market adorns an exterior fence.

Jordan and Sandra Laby at their home in the Ventura Keys.

Son Todd Laby, a sculptor and former furniture designer, carved “Flying Bird Over the San Francisco Ocean” out of glued plywood. See more of his art at toddlaby.com.

Susan Krieg’s mixed media painting “Con Fuoco” hangs over a dancing sculpture by ceramic artist Linda Carson. Both pieces were purchased to benefit the Ventura Music Festival.

11-01-2015

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