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Power, Money And Orange County Arts

June 08, 1986|HERMAN WONG

For a man who is Orange County's most widely proclaimed patron of the arts, developer Henry Segerstrom seems to like things modest.

Of his role in steering the county's biggest and most successful arts campaign--to date more than $128 million raised to construct and endow the Orange County Performing Arts Center--he said: "There are a lot of people in this campaign. I'm just one of the worker bees."

A slight understatement.

After all, Orange County's Segerstrom clan--which built its fortune first on sprawling agricultural holdings and later on huge shopping, office and hotel developments in Costa Mesa and Santa Ana--has made its mark in recent years on Orange County arts with swift and spectacular flourishes.

The family not only gave a five-acre site near their South Coast Plaza shopping mall in Costa Mesa to the Performing Arts Center, but also donated $6 million to the project, easily the largest contribution.

Segerstrom himself is chairman of the arts center campaign. Touted as the biggest-ever all-private fund drive for a performing arts complex in the country, the project has raised $64.1 million for construction and $64 million for an operating endowment. (The center's 3,000-seat multipurpose theater, being built at the cost of $70.7 million, is scheduled to open Sept. 29.)

And Segerstrom personally selected all 17 sculptures the family has acquired or commissioned for public spaces in their South Coast Plaza office projects. Including works by Carl Milles and Joan Miro, the collection is considered one of the largest corporate public-art displays in the West. The cost of the six-piece sculpture garden that another international master, Isamu Noguchi, created for one office courtyard, was reportedly $2 million.

The 63-year-old Segerstrom appears cut from a classic American arts-patron mold--one of those corporate moguls who have become a late-in-life major doer of cultural good works. So good, in fact, that his firm has won a national Business in the Arts Award for three straight years.

But such quick emergence as a big art patron has left Segerstrom open to some skepticism: namely, that he is using the Performing Arts Center and other cultural projects mostly to bolster the profitability of his shopping, office, hotel and other mercantile properties that his firm owns or has developed.

The power of the Segerstrom family in Orange County is such that it is unlikely anyone would say anything but the most laudatory things for the record.

Still, in a rare interview, Segerstrom dismissed any talk of a presumed "hidden agenda" as idle gossip, adding that his cultural involvement is "totally personal and sincere." His arts activism may be relatively new, but then--he argues--it parallels the comparatively late and swift cultural development of Orange County itself.

The thesis that Segerstrom's arts benevolence is fostered more by his mercantile interests goes like this: The cultural center, once in full operation, could markedly boost business for the restaurants, garages and other entertainment-related ventures in the entire 112-acre South Coast Plaza Mall and Town Center sector.

The Segerstrom firm has built a 21-story Center Tower office complex--complete with ultraposh private dining club--adjacent to the Performing Arts Center. Planned in tandem with the arts project and designed by the same architect, the tower offers a 1,200-space garage that will serve as the primary paid-parking facility for patrons of the arts center.

Three years ago, there was a brief public flurry over the issue of possible conflicting interests involving the Performing Arts Center.

Segerstrom had asked the Orange County Board of Supervisors to allocate $160,000 in federal revenue-sharing funds to help pay for a Southern California Edison Co. underground power-line project for the arts center. Segerstrom, who is also a member of the utility firm's board of directors, had told county officials he was making the request on behalf of the arts center.

But some county aides questioned whether public funds could be used for a project that might also benefit surrounding commercial properties, including those owned or under development by the Segerstrom firm. The issue was resolved when the county counsel's office ruled that the $160,000 could be allocated, provided it is given to the arts center organization, a nonprofit body, and not--as originally proposed--to Edison, a private company.

Not only has the Segerstrom firm brought the center and the South Coast Rep Theatre into the South Coast Plaza district, the firm has also expanded other cultural possibilities. Since October, 1984, the Laguna Art Museum has operated a "satellite museum" in a rent-free storefront in Segerstroms' South Coast Plaza shopping mall.

In a recent interview, Segerstrom acknowledged that the cultural projects--being an "inseparable element" in his firm's commercial developments--cannot help but appear conflicting to some community observers.

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