In 1968, high school teacher George Drury Smith started a literary magazine out of the print shop he ran as a side business on West Washington Boulevard in Venice. He filled the new magazine, which he named Beyond Baroque, with poetry, prose and reviews of poetry. In 1969, Smith started holding poetry readings in the print shop's storefront. Later that same year, Joseph Hanson and John Harris started the Wednesday Night Poetry Workshop there, and it became a community destination and performance space. Smith established a library of poetry chapbooks that would become a bookstore, and began showing art. When Beyond Baroque moved to its present location in the old Venice City Hall in 1979, all of that was expanded.
Richard Modiano, Beyond Baroque's executive director, recalls his first experiences with the literary arts center. “I think I read about Beyond Baroque in the Los Angeles Free Press, a long-defunct underground newspaper. Although I'm originally from Los Angeles, I lived in New York City for a number of years, and I was back visiting in 1980. A friend of mine said, 'Oh, Beyond Baroque is now in the old Venice City Hall. We should go and check it out.' I never did go to the previous location on West Washington Boulevard. The first time I set foot in Beyond Baroque was the summer of 1980.”
Modiano later became a board member, and he was elected executive director in 2010. Beyond Baroque now holds about 200 cultural events a year, including readings, workshops, gallery exhibitions and film screenings. The Wednesday Night Poetry Workshop that started in 1969 is still on the schedule, averaging about 12 people a meeting.
Beyond Baroque offers eight free writing workshops every week, but Modiano describes the Wednesday Night Poetry Workshop as “the jewel in the crown.” He says, “It was in the Wednesday night workshop that John Doe and Exene Cervenka met. In earlier decades, the late Wanda Coleman was part of that workshop.”
On Nov. 10, Beyond Baroque is throwing itself a party to celebrate its 50th anniversary. The night will include a tented dinner for 200 people, poetry, music and awards. Tickets aren't on sale yet but Modiano says, “We are going to be having performances by Chris D., Julie Christensen and Mike Watt.” The event will include an art auction curated by Juri Koll and Andrew Schwartz; among the works to be auctioned are pieces by Robbie Conal, George Herms, John Baldessari and Raymond Pettibon.
As they pay tribute to Beyond Baroque's history, Modiano and his team are also looking to the future. He says, “Beyond Baroque is sort of an island in a sea of gentrification right now, and it will not be gentrified. It will be accessible to everybody — rich, poor and in between. If you can't afford to go to the show, you can come to the free open readings. If you can't afford to pay for a writing workshop at your local community college, you can come to Beyond Baroque for a free writing workshop that is taught by somebody who is the equal of any professor or professional writer that you are likely to find anywhere else.”