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The Ripple Effect : Area arts officials regard the opening of the center as something of a mixed blessing for Orange County arts groups

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

We all know it won't be easy. It's ironic that our greatest catalyst, the center, is also our greatest (fiscal) competitor."

That observation by Erich Vollmer, executive director of the Orange County Philharmonic Society, is echoed by local arts officials who regard the opening of the Performing Arts Center as something of a mixed blessing for the county.

On one hand, the center's coming is seen as downright messianic, a force to end Orange County arts factionalism, fulfill the county's promise of a cultural boom and propel the local arts groups into the big time.

On the other, the center's fiscal appetite is depicted as voracious--$70.7 million for the 3,000-seat main theater and millions more for annual programming, operating costs and the construction of a second theater--leaving other local groups as also-rans in fund raising.

Then there's the matter of appearances.

Only a few years ago, some backers of performing groups in Orange County concluded that the center was being built as an "import house" for big-name attractions, while local groups would be kept out or limited to token appearances.

These critics claimed that center leadership reflected a bias carried over from years of living in the cultural shadow of Los Angeles: That if it's based in Orange County, then it isn't of Performing Arts Center caliber.

Relations reached their lowest ebb in early 1984, when the Orange County Pacific Symphony asked to be named the center's resident orchestra and the center announced that it was not about to consider residency status for any group, local or otherwise.

The center's argument was this: The local performing groups were too immature organizationally and financially, and unlikely to fill the 3,000-seat hall, which is nearly twice the size of the Santa Ana High School Auditorium, until now the county's main concert hall.

Instead, the argument went, local performing groups should wait until the center's community-oriented 1,000-seat second theater is built.

But last December, the center announced that the Pacific Symphony would play the main hall after all. Within weeks, four other signings were announced: Opera Pacific, Pacific Chorale, Master Chorale of Orange County plus, as expected, the Orange County Philharmonic Society.

Center officials say that these local signings have meant no change in policy. They contend that they have always considered Orange County organizations for the big hall, provided that such groups could pay their own way.

Some arts leaders suggest different motives behind the change of heart. These critics note that the wait for the second theater may be long: The designing and financing of the 1,000-seat facility, which is expected to cost about $10 million, have been put on hold until the main hall is opened and paid for.

Furthermore, the critics contend that the booking shift was made in part to strengthen the community image of the Performing Arts Center, which needs millions of dollars more from private donors for operating and completing the two-theater complex.

The move by the Philharmonic Society and the four performing organizations to the larger, more prestigious hall has resulted in bigger-than-ever fund-raising efforts.

Although the move has provided local groups with greater access to nationally known artists, as well as hundreds of new season subscribers, production and promotion costs also have soared. And doubts remain whether all the local groups have the ticket-selling clout to fill 3,000 seats.

Already, there have been cases of organizational disarray. In the past two years, some board-announced fund drives have been canceled abruptly, staff administrators have left after brief stays, and financial projections have had to be drastically cut.

"They're under enormous stress. They have to put their (organizational) acts together overnight. There are ego and power trips involved, and inevitable clashes between the idealistic and pragmatic," one longtime local arts activist notes.

"There's also the sense of excitement, the knowing that they're in at the beginning of something historic, a once-in-a-lifetime event."

For this "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity, all five Orange County organizations are offering their most ambitious subscription seasons--and projecting record-high budgets.

"Artistically, we've already shown them we belong there," says Keith Clark, the Pacific Symphony's founding music director. "Now the ball's back in our court. We have to show we can reach the same levels in organization and fiscal support."

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