Martin Betz. GLORIA PLASCENCIA, CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER
Martin Betz and his family landed at Ontario International Airport on July 4, 1964.
“My parents almost had a heart attack because, you know how things are around here on July 4.” He laughs. “They thought they were moving from one fascist country to another.
“I was born in Germany,” Betz continues. “My dad (Hans Dieter Betz) is a world-renowned theologian and philosopher. He left Germany because a lot of people didn’t agree with what he was saying.”
Now, half a century later, this theologian’s son has become the Cultural Arts Manager for the City of Manhattan Beach. This is his first month on the job, he’d only been on it four days when we spoke, but he brings years of experience to the position – a position that has actually lain fallow for two or three years.
Up the ladder
“I got interested in art early on,” Betz says, sitting back in his brick-walled office at City Hall. “I was a ceramics person for a long time.”
That is to say, he spent a while in the ceramics department at Cal State Fullerton, but what he came to perceive as a limited medium eventually had him looking elsewhere. “This was the ‘80s. I was more of a punk rocker kind of guy and wanted to make films and do video and installations. So I kind of went down that path.”
Betz attended graduate school at Claremont University College. His father, who had by then moved on to the University of Chicago, had previously been lured to Claremont to head up programs in antiquity research pertaining to early Christianity (“Dead Sea scrolls, things like that,” his son says).
“I thought I was going to become a college professor,” he explains. “That was my goal; it goes back many generations.”
However, an earlier interest prevailed.
“I started getting involved in the museum business. I ran the art galleries for the Claremont Graduate School for a couple of years, and then I started working at the Newport Harbor Art Museum before it [became] the Orange County Museum of Art.”
Betz next ended up at the Long Beach Museum of Art, above the bluffs along Ocean Boulevard on the outskirts of downtown Long Beach. He headed up the exhibitions department.
Thirteen years went by, and he became restless. And then, “This opportunity came up to go to Hawaii and run an art school (the Hui no eau Visual Art Center) on Maui. And I thought, who’s gonna not do that, right?”
Betz and his wife lived on the island for four years. “It was a very interesting experience to live there,” culturally speaking. “The politics were really hard though.”
After this it was back to California, and south to Temecula.
“They were starting a new cultural arts division because the city had grown a lot. The community was sort of tired of driving to L.A. for concerts and driving to San Diego to do things. They wanted everything in Temecula, so they invested a huge amount of money.”
A performing arts center was built, and now there are two museums in town. “We had a department of 35 people working in the arts.”
It was bustling, for a while. “Then in 2009 the economy kind of took a dive for Temecula,” Betz says. People lost their homes and the city’s tax revenue declined. “And so they laid off a lot of people.”
Then it was back to the beach, and Betz worked for a couple of years as the director of exhibits, education, and collections for the Laguna Festival of Arts. Afterwards there was a stint at the Heritage Square Museum in Los Angeles – that collection of classic Victorian homes just off the Pasadena Freeway.
“Really cool,” Betz says of the job. “Of course, they had no money.”
All of which reads nicely on a resume and brings us up to date. Sort of like a slide presentation, and now the lights have come back on.
A new dawn for the city?
Manhattan Beach has various cultural arts programs that Betz will oversee, with the scheduling for the Creative Arts Center being one of the most visible. The city has hosted some fine shows there over the years, most recently under the guidance of Megumi Sando and Heather Anacker, and with classy exhibitions every few months hosted by Homeira Goldstein and Arts Manhattan.
“I’m pretty excited about that,” Betz says.
With some renovations the facility, a former library, could double its gallery space. There’s potential here, if the city wishes to invest in it.
Betz also intends to reach deeper into the community.
“I think education is a big focus,” he says. “Getting the youth involved. I’m assuming that here in Manhattan Beach it’s a pretty well-to-do and pretty well-educated society, and you’re kind of starting in the middle. You don’t need to start at the bottom. Probably a lot of these kids have been to Europe or seen art museums.”
We talk about various galleries and their programs in the South Bay, from ESMoA in El Segundo to South Bay Contemporary in Rolling Hills, and Betz seems ready to engage all of them. He feels he can do his part to elevate awareness and appreciation of the arts locally.
“It seems to me that Manhattan Beach is very interested in the arts,” Betz says; “at least as a city they’re interested in doing some things, and I think there’s a lot of creative people in this town. I’m looking forward to taking this to the next level for the City of Manhattan Beach.”