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Creating A Center : Q&a

September 21, 1986|HERMAN WONG | Herman Wong is a Times staff writer.

Henry Segerstrom, at 63, is regarded in Orange County as something of a cultural visionary. But that rather lofty image seems to have come about almost overnight.

Until the mid-1970s, the family-run C. J. Segerstrom & Sons Inc. of Costa Mesa was known primarily as a highly successful Orange County agribusiness, landowner and mall builder.

But that picture changed when the Segerstroms moved to bring big-city arts into their South Coast Plaza shopping and office sector in Costa Mesa: first, with a $3.5-million South Coast Repertory complex that opened in 1978, and now, with the Orange County Performing Arts Center's $70.7-million theater.

Also, the Segerstrom firm's benevolence to the center has been on a scale unprecedented in Orange County:

The firm donated a five-acre South Coast Plaza-area site for the complex.

It pledged $6 million to the arts complex, the largest donor commitment and one that opened the way for wooing other big-name givers.

Its managing partner, Henry Segerstrom, took over leadership of the fund drive, heralded as the largest private campaign yet for building a performing arts complex in the United States.

All this has served to heighten one community image of the Segerstroms as shrewd entrepreneurs whose cultural moves are ruled more by mercantile motives than by altruism.

After all, the Performing Arts Center could significantly boost the business of the Segerstroms' neighboring new 21-story office tower--complete with 1,200-space garage and ultra-fashionable private dining club.

As overseer of his family's business fortunes and cultural charities, Henry Segerstrom--Santa Ana-born, Stanford-educated, World War II combat veteran--takes praisers and detractors in stride.

For a man once averse to personal publicity, Segerstrom now clearly relishes--and nurtures--his image as arts entrepreneur. In Los Angeles, he is a member of the board of trustees of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Nationally, his firm has won Business in the Arts awards for the past three years.

And his 17-piece South Coast Plaza sculpture collection--including works by Isamu Noguchi, Joan Miro and Carl Milles--is touted as one of the biggest corporate public-art displays in the West.

But Segerstrom's principal role is that of the Performing Arts Center's senior salesman. As he depicts it in the following interview, Segerstrom sees his emergence as Orange County's best-known benefactor as, simply, a matter of being at the right place at the right time.

Q: You have stated that your major cultural involvement did not really begin until 1976, with the South Coast Repertory Theatre fund drive.

A: Yes. We gave SCR the two acres and $50,000. There was a convergence of interests because South Coast Plaza had to qualify itself as Orange County's downtown hub. So it became evident that if it is a good destination for shopping, hotels and restaurants, why shouldn't it be good for culture?

Q: But how did you deal with the image of conflicting interests?

A: I told them (SCR) I would help with fund raising but said I didn't want a prominent role, I didn't want the community to feel that we were doing something just to enhance South Coast Plaza. But we saw that my own involvement in fund raising was not taken by the community as being self-serving--it was not.

So when the Orange County Center came along, I thought to myself: I know the community doesn't think it's self-serving, so therefore I would like to take a leadership role--and I don't think there will be any conflicts, and there haven't been. I don't think that anyone I know feels there's an ulterior motive in it (soliciting donations). Nor have we had one rejection by that intimation--absolutely not. People know if you're genuinely sincere.

Q: Since this major cultural activity began at the time your commercial developments were also in the process of being greatly expanded, one premise is that your cultural motives are based primarily on commercial gain.

A: My cultural involvement is totally personal and sincere. It (culture) is an inseparable element in the (South Coast Plaza) development. In the cases of both the South Coast Repertory and the Performing Arts Center, the people came to me with the (site) idea; I did not go out and seek them.

Some people take a cynical point of view toward 'most everything in life. They see a hidden, indiscreet purpose behind an activity. If you are to be distracted or dismayed or defeated by people who are suspicious, you never start anything.

Q: What was the status of the Performing Arts Center campaign when you joined it?

A: There was no (major donor) campaign before 1979--simply the desire. Zero. It didn't exist. Nothing had started until the gift of land was committed.

Q: Still, the Performing Arts Center fund drive got off rather dramatically after 1979, didn't it?

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