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A Bigger Slice of O.C. Goes to the Arts

1998 in Review: A new entertainment complex and plans for a cultural center and other expansions are top developments.


Unless you count the Block--which throngs of movie-hounds might--late news about a one-time lima bean field eclipsed all other developments on the Orange County arts and entertainment scene this year.

The Segerstrom family announced Dec. 15 that it would donate another six acres of erstwhile farmland beside the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa for the center's long-planned expansion.

"There is a need for more cultural institutions" in Orange County, proclaimed founding center chairman Henry T. Segerstrom, only a month after the Mills Corp., which plainly believes there's a need for more cinema screens, gave the county its biggest multiplex.

Built for $165 million, the Block brings 30 AMC movie screens and 100-plus shops and restaurants to Orange. Some 12,000 people packed opening day (free movies were shown), and more than 10,000 people have bought a $50 annual membership to the skateboard park.

But, back to high art.

The proposed Segerstrom Center for the Art's initial phase, to be designed by renowned architect Cesar Pelli, is envisioned as an 1,800- to 2,000-seat concert hall that primarily would be a home to the Pacific Symphony. The new venue is to be built across the street from the existing center and next to a planned 500-seat multipurpose hall, said planners, who estimate costs at $100 million or more. Ribbon-cutting on the project is expected in about five years.

Later phases of the proposed expansion could include a visual-arts complex abutting the new concert hall and a pedestrian plaza linking all the new elements. Segerstrom, whose family gave the land on which the current center and South Coast Repertory stand, earmarked part of the newly donated land for an SCR expansion.

The promised acreage wasn't a bad capper for SCR's 35th anniversary year, during which it also won its largest operating grant, $550,000 from the James Irvine Foundation.

The three-year grant, part of a broader initiative to strengthen exemplary California arts institutions, will fund new-play commissions by SCR, whose board expects next month to advance tentative plans for a 300-seat proscenium-stage theater.

Pacific Symphony's honchos also must answer a passel of critical questions raised by the promise of new quarters. Chief among them: whether to become a full-time operation. Guiding the orchestra through the strategic process will be one of new executive director John Forsyte's greatest challenges.

Forsyte, who joined PSO in May on a 13-month contract, was executive director of the Kalamazoo Symphony in Michigan. He succeeds Louis G. Spisto, who left in March after a 10-year tenure to become president of the Detroit Symphony.

One thing is certain: PSO must build its $3.5-million endowment if it wants to grow.

Money and management matters also loomed large in 1998 at PSO's sister organization, Opera Pacific. A deficit of nearly $2 million in April led opera executives to lay off a third of the staff, move to smaller offices and forge an administrative cost-sharing partnership with the performing arts center.

Businessman-arts patron Martin Hubbard took over as interim executive director, filling a leadership gap that had existed after general director Patrick L. Veitch abruptly left the company late last year after 15 contentious months.

Hubbard quickly fired six full-time staff members in the finance, data processing and ticketing departments, among other cost-cutting moves, and subsequently elevated music director John DeMain to artistic director and hired Mitchell Krieger from the Detroit Opera House as production chief.

Earlier this month, Hubbard--who has launched an aggressive fund-raising campaign--ruled out the possibility that the company would fold. It has the money to present its four-opera season (which opened last month) in its entirety, and its cumulative deficit is about $965,000.

By contrast, the Orange County Museum of Art was flush when it celebrated the organization's first anniversary in January.

Created through the bitterly disputed merger of the defunct Newport Harbor Art Museum and the Laguna Art Museum (which later split off on its own), OCMA found itself with a $2.7-million annual budget--more than double Newport Harbor's--and an endowment that soared from almost nothing to $5.5 million.

Laguna museum officials, meanwhile, cheered what they called an unprecedented level of community support as they observed a year's independence from OCMA in April.

Earlier, when merger proponents left open the possibility of closing the museum, fear of losing the city landmark altogether prompted a 10% increase in membership and led the city of Laguna Beach to give a $75,000 grant in 1996, museum officials said. (The city previously gave no more than $2,000 a year.) In June, it awarded the museum another $100,000.

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