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UCI Administrator Mandel Takes Over O.C. Arts Center

Culture: The proven fund-raiser has little experience in field but big plans to expand and diversify audience.


COSTA MESA — Jerry E. Mandel, a proven fund-raiser and administrator with limited experience running major arts institutions, was named the new president and chief executive officer of the Orange County Performing Arts Center Thursday.

Mandel, 57, a center board member who has been UC Irvine's chief fund-raiser for the past two years, said he wants the center to become "the most exciting place for the performing arts in this country.

"I want it to be more accessible to more people in the county," he added. "What we do now is wonderful, and I want to keep doing that, but I want a more diverse audience."

Robert C. Maxson, president of Cal State Long Beach, where Mandel spent six years as a fund-raiser before coming to UCI, said "the center is lucky to get him. He's a very polished and articulate person who is a first-rate fund-raiser and a good administrator."

Center board Chairman Mark Johnson, who headed the search committee, cited Mandel's experience in "education, business and administration. . . . He has the skill and background to take the center into the 21st century." Mandel has signed a five-year contract.

The appointment, effective July 1, caps a nine-month national search. Orange County's most prominent arts institution, the center has been without a president since Tom Tomlinson left under pressure last July for reasons that never have been made public.

Mandel's immediate challenges include responding to the downturn in attendance for center dance presentations, raising funds to build a second performance hall, figuring out what kind of hall to build and broadening the center's programming, which has consisted almost exclusively of classical music, ballet, opera and musical theater.

In its early years, the center was criticized as catering to the interests of its major donors. But the need to increase its funding base by diversifying programming has become increasingly pronounced.

Johnson went out of his way Thursday to emphasize that the search process was longer and more thorough than usual, to counter any "conflicts" that might arise from choosing Mandel, who is not just a board member but who serves on the board's executive committee.

"We did not want there to be any appearance [of favoritism]," Johnson said in an interview. "We realized it might raise eyebrows, as well it should."

The $200,000-a-year presidency "is not a job that I sought," said Mandel, who currently earns $140,700. He said he has spent "sleepless nights" deciding that the center "is where I want to go with my career."

The search committee was satisfied that Mandel was "the best candidate," Johnson said, asserting that "a substantial number" of arts executives were considered. There were about 150 applicants, he said.

According to sources, the other finalists were Josiah A. Spaulding Jr., head of the Wang Center for the Performing Arts in Boston, who was considered the front-runner until he took himself out of the race Monday; and Louis G. Spisto Jr., vice president and executive director of the Santa Ana-based Pacific Symphony, which plays regularly at the center.

Mandel, who joined the center board 16 months ago, emphasized at Thursday's press conference that he was surprised earlier this year when other board members began asking him informally whether he would consider the presidency.

He said he had previously turned down the post of vice president for development at the center--the job is still vacant--because of his allegiance to UCI. Mandel said he told his fellow board members at the center that he had "the best fund-raising job in the county at UCI" and did not want to make "a lateral move."

Two months ago, however, an executive search firm, hired by the center to identify prospective candidates for the presidency, approached Mandel formally and asked him to apply for the top post.

"There is no other job I would have left UCI for," Mandel said Thursday.

Calling the arts his "passion," Mandel said he has had a lifelong dream of running a performing arts center and that he regards his new appointment as "the culmination of my career."

UCI Chancellor Laurel L. Wilkening called the appointment a "great opportunity" for Mandel.

"We're very sorry to lose Jerry, but he has accomplished a lot in a very short period of time and I know this was a position that he just couldn't pass up because it brought together a lot of different aspects of his background."

Joyce Gattas, who worked for Mandel at San Diego State University in the early 1980s when he was dean of its professional studies and fine arts college, praised him as a "maverick" who helped establish many fledgling arts programs there. Gattas now holds the same post.

"Jerry was not afraid to try out new ideas, new performers," she said. "He's gutsy that way. He had this gift to be able to say, 'Let's do it, this is going to be great.' And then he'd pull those things off."

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