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ANN CONWAY

Visions of a Plum Position : Forget Dessert. As New Director of the Arts Center, Tom Tomlinson Is Sweet on O.C.

August 30, 1993|ANN CONWAY

Party hostesses, take note: The man on everyone's social A-list despises Brussels sprouts, likes white wine, mainlines French roast coffee, prefers pasta, makes a "mean vegetable lasagna" and enjoys intimate parties for 10 to 12 people.

Oh, and fascinating conversation is dessert enough for Tom Tomlinson--the new executive director of the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. He doesn't do sugar. So, after that sit-down repast, serve up some interesting chitchat.

"I love having a challenging conversation about the arts," says Tomlinson, former president of the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts in Anchorage. (Hints: Discuss the lack of resources for the creation of new works, especially Broadway musicals. Or dive into one of the disciplines. "I enjoy talking to someone who is associated with a discipline that I'm not familiar with," he says.)

What for the sound system? Chamber music is a favorite, but his tastes are eclectic--from the Grateful Dead to show tunes. Surprise him.

The dress code? Informal is fine. But this bachelor has three tuxedos--"My favorite is double-breasted," he says--so he's more than game for a black-tie affair.

By all means provide song and dance at your party. But don't ask Tomlinson to do either. "I'm not much of a dancer, and I can't carry a tune," he admits.

He worships those who can. "I think being an artist is the highest calling you can possibly have," he says.

In the weeks since his arrival from Anchorage, Tomlinson, 43, has found a temporary place to live--Promontory Point in Newport Beach--schmoozed with arts buffs at a few high-profile galas and decided he is here to stay.

"After I sell my home in Alaska I'll be able to buy property here," he says.

(Tomlinson keeps several color glossies of his two-acre Alaska spread on his desk. They portray woodsy surroundings--one has a moose ambling by, another captures some elegant posing by his Russian wolfhounds, Talus and Nicholas.)

A home close to work tops his new wish list. There isn't much leisure time in the arts management business, he says. Days can be 18 hours long. Sometimes they begin with an early-bird meeting and end with a cast party that spills into the wee hours.

Cast parties attended by center donors and support group members provide Orange County arts society with a unique opportunity, Tomlinson says.

The dine-and-dance bashes staged by the center board at Birraporetti's in Costa Mesa offer "us a very special chance to be with people who can do things we can't do, or know how to do or have the opportunity to do," he says. "And the connection is wonderfully human."

Minutes before such a party, half of the party-goers are performing and half are in the audience. Before the party is over, members of the audience are introducing themselves to members of the cast, and "some are even dancing together," Tomlinson says.

"It's a remarkably casual atmosphere for the talent that walks in," he says. "And that's great."

His idea of a perfect social evening? One that is thought-provoking. "I measure an evening by how I feel at the end of it," he says. "If I feel in some way invigorated, enlightened, in some way changed, I'm happy. I think that's what the arts are all about.

"In a lot of ways, I am a different person than I was when I walked into last week's cast party for 'Crazy for You.' I met a new group of people. And I am further becoming a part of what Orange County is all about," he says.

Sophistication is what Orange County is all about, Tomlinson says. "I don't agree with the comments that were around when the center was being considered--that Orange County is not culturally aware.

"You won't find any place in the country that has the private support for an institution that this one does," he says. "That in itself says this county is different than any other in the country.

"And the reaction of the audience to Baryshnikov's 'White Oak Dance Project' and the Joffrey Ballet's 'Billboards' suggests to me that this is a sophisticated audience that demands high quality and isn't going to settle for anything less," he says.

Mostly, of course, Tomlinson will spend his time working hard at providing a venue for the performing arts. "For me, the satisfaction of my job is knowing I can create opportunities for artists to work," he says.

Part of that time will be spent maintaining a high social profile. "The center needs a professional management image just like it needs a center image and a board image," he explains.

But look for the day when he has a few good friends over for his all-veggie lasagna, a sip of Chardonnay and some "challenging conversation about the arts."

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