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Orange County Arts Center Celebrates and Looks Ahead

The arts: After 10 successful years as an artistic catalyst, it faces two challenges: finding a new leader and raising the funds to expand.

September 03, 1996|JAN HERMAN and MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Ten years ago this month, the Orange County Performing Arts Center opened to huge fanfare and towering expectations.

Privately funded and operated, the lavish $73-million 3,000-seat center sprung up alongside prime donor Henry T. Segerstrom's South Coast Plaza mall in Costa Mesa, almost as an adjunct. Offering a mix of imported and home-grown talent, the center quickly became the county's most powerful symbol of artistic ambition, social prestige, plutocratic largess and dedicated voluntarism.

"I could never have brought a Cecilia Bartoli to the Santa Ana High School auditorium, where we used to present our programs, and the Vienna Philharmonic would never have come," says Dean Corey, who heads the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, which is bringing that orchestra to the center next season.

"The center has been a major catalyst for the county," continued Corey, on the phone from the Salzburg Music Festival in Austria, where he was scouting for other artists. "It hasn't just raised the perception of the arts; it's helping the county come of age."

Roughly 1,200 of the center's supporters are expected to attend a 10th anniversary gala concert and celebration on Sunday. The top ticket price is $500; some tables at the post-concert dinner have sold for between $5,000 and $25,000 each, a center spokesman says. The one-night event is expected to net $550,000.

The center dwarfs all other Orange County arts institutions in size and prominence and rivals the Los Angeles Music Center as a presenter of touring productions.

Among its coups is its self-proclaimed mission to become the premier presenter of dance on the West Coast, bringing in such companies as the Royal Danish Ballet, New York City Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theatre, often for exclusive Southern California engagements. It has also established itself as a major stop for international stars and orchestras in classical music, as well as for touring Broadway shows.

Meanwhile, it has provided a local opera company, Opera Pacific; a local orchestra, the Pacific Symphony; and two local chorales, the Pacific Chorale and the William Hall Master Chorale, with a place to perform and develop.

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"In the first two seasons we saw an explosion in the arts-consuming public," said Louis Spisto, executive director of the Pacific Symphony. "The center drew attention to the arts in the county as an option for leisure-time activities in a way that didn't exist before. My belief is that a market was created around the center that to this day is one of its great achievements."

But as the center and its supporters celebrate, it also faces two important unresolved issues crucial to its future.

First, it must find a new president to lead it into its second decade. The job suddenly came open in late July, when Tom Tomlinson, a career arts executive well-liked in the Orange County arts community, resigned under apparent pressure. Speculation--which has blossomed in the absence of any details from the center or from Tomlinson--has focused on possible conflicts of both substance and personal style between Tomlinson and key board members, including Segerstrom, the center's leading individual donor.

The center's other challenge is to add a second and possibly third theater, thus alleviating a scheduling crunch that is a byproduct of its success.

The red-upholstered 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall is so fully booked that the center can't accommodate growth in its local companies, let alone expand into such areas as jazz or pop music, which have been showcased only rarely at the center. For now, the center's mission statement remains unchanged, says Judith O'Dea Morr, its director of programming: Opera, ballet, classical music and touring Broadway productions will continue to be the core presentations.

"I would be very disappointed if, 10 years from now, I was sitting here and the center had not significantly expanded," said Mark Chapin Johnson, president and CEO of Chapin Medical Co., a pharmaceuticals distribution company, who is the center's chairman. "We know through our studies that the community wants, desires and needs far more of the arts than we present."

An addition on a vacant lot next to the center would, Johnson thinks, allow the institution to become "not just a world-class [concert hall], which it already is, but a greater world-class destination, more like Lincoln Center and others around the world."

A consultant's report made public last January proposed a 2,000-seat concert hall, as well as a 750-seat theater for plays, to be built at an estimated cost of $90 million to $105 million.

Perhaps with an eye toward the Los Angeles Music Center's well-publicized difficulties raising funds for its proposed expansion, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Johnson is cautious about growth.

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