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He's Perfecting the Art of Getting Along : Culture: Under Tom Tomlinson, the Orange County Performing Arts Center mends fences.


COSTA MESA — Twelve months after taking over the top job at Orange County's largest arts institution, Tom Tomlinson looks no worse for wear. Movie-star tan and not a blond hair out of place, he gives the outward appearance of operating on cruise control.

In fact, he works off stress by running 50 miles a week. And his style of leadership draws nothing but raves from the people who work with him. One local arts executive calls him "a problem-solver." Another lauds him as "a consensus-builder." Nobody in almost a dozen interviews has anything negative to say about him, not even off the record.

Sitting in his wood-paneled office at the 8-year-old Orange County Performing Arts Center, where he presides as chief operating officer over a 3,000-seat hall and a budget of roughly $20 million, Tomlinson wonders aloud what a paragon he must be to have created such an impression.

"Gee," he says, evincing the open, youthful manner everyone talks about, "this sounds too good to be true."

That he is personally accessible, gregarious and self-effacing--all terms used by various associates to describe him--seems beyond question. But have those attributes translated into policy decisions aimed at taking the center in new directions? Or has Tomlinson simply chosen to reaffirm the old directions since officially stepping into his post a year ago?

The answer, perhaps not surprisingly, is a little of both.

By all accounts, the 44-year-old Spokane, Wash., native has shown a willingness to recast the center's institutional image from the haughty dowager of the arts community to a friendlier, less lofty doyenne in cautious but meaningful ways.

- He has made signficant overtures to the center's three major resident companies--the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, the Orange County Philharmonic Society (which brings in touring ensembles and soloists) and Opera Pacific--with offers of collaborative programming. This has helped patch up wounds from a prickly cultural turf battle that arose before he came.

- He has improved the play dates for the two smaller resident companies--the Pacific Chorale and the Master Chorale--within the limited wiggle room of the center's heavily booked schedule. This has soothed wounded pride over past treatment that made them feel like hangers-on.

- He has backed the idea of an architectural structure in the center lobby to provide on-site donor recognition for all five resident companies, which they long had sought without success. A cost-sharing study and design meetings are underway.

"What I'm trying to do," he says, "is see that bridges are built among the organizations and in the public mind."

Compared with his previous experiences, he considers whatever corrective measures he has taken at the privately funded, $73-million center to be minimal.

He came here from Anchorage, Alaska, where he had run the $70-million Alaska Center for the Performing Arts since its opening in 1988. Before that three-theater complex, he ran the Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet, Ill., the Pantages Center for the Performing Arts in Tacoma, Wash., and the Capitol Theatre in Yakima, Wash.

"Usually, after a brief time at a new place, you discover there are a bunch of things nobody told you about," says Tomlinson, who keeps photos of those halls above the sofa in his office. "There were no surprises here. If I can put any capsule around it, there's been very little remedial work to do. . . .

"We're doing cooperative programming with the symphony and the Philharmonic Society. But I'd like to think that's just the tip of the iceberg. We really can see a much more collaborative arts scene, some of which the center can facilitate and some of which it can lead."

The most immediate example will be the joint presentation Oct. 13 of Michael Nyman, the British composer-pianist whose score for Jane Campion's "The Piano" catapulted him to fame. The center and the Pacific Symphony are sponsoring the concert to offer a "new music" artist not previously seen here.

"It was Tom's idea," says Louis G. Spisto, executive director of the Pacific Symphony. "Michael Nyman has a big following, but he's a niche market. He's the kind of classical crossover none of us had brought in before. I think Tom has added a dimension of leadership at the center that reflects his personal style. He's very open."

The most extraordinary instance of a cooperative venture could be a two-night engagement in May of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra led by James Levine. Although the deal has yet to be signed, the center, Opera Pacific and the Pacific Symphony are making joint plans to sponsor what could be the orchestra's only Southern California stop on a rare national tour that, as of now, will stop at just eight halls.

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