Times Staff Writer

Is there an arts boom in Orange County? Second in an occasional series of articles profiling artists and activists who are making a difference in the cultural life of the community.

Michael and Jill Watkins of Corona del Mar represent a new, young breed in Orange County arts circles: the culturally chic.

Still in their 30s, they live in a gold coast sector synonymous with affluence. Their careers represent upward mobility. Their leisure pursuits run the gamut from playing at trendy sports clubs to dining at upscale restaurants.

In just the last few years, however, they have also become very active arts consumers in both Orange and Los Angeles counties: attending more classical concerts, more dramas and musicals, more museum exhibits.

And they now make the rounds of Europe's cultural capitals with a flourish: playhouses in London, concert halls in Salzburg, museums in Florence and palaces in Paris.

Now, some critics might liken this kind of arts enthusiasm to being no more than a new kind of conspicuous consumption.

But the Watkinses, who freely admit to being what amounts to "cultural yuppies," view their arts pursuits as a natural extension of their leisure life.

"Frankly, I think people try to read too much into what people like us do. It's quite simple--we do it because it's now a part of our life style," said Jill Watkins, 34, a member of the Newport Harbor Art Museum's yuppie-oriented Contemporary Club.

Her husband, Michael, 37, active in Orange County fund raising for the St. Vincent de Paul Society food program and the Mardan Center of Educational Therapy, added:

"I know it's become a cliche to say this, but it's true for us. We also see the arts as a way to become more a part of our community. We see it as bringing more quality into our lives."

However, Michael, who runs a sports management business in Newport Beach, admits that he didn't show much interest in the arts until recent years.

He's always been a sports fanatic. As a high school student in Menlo Park near San Francisco, he played a lot of baseball, basketball and tennis. Although he started a career in radio as a disk jockey and salesman in the Pacific Northwest, he returned to sports as a public relations director for a World Team Tennis organization.

After moving to Orange County seven years ago, he set up his present management firm, which includes handling business matters for athletes. For a time, he was also principal owner of the Redwood Pioneers baseball team, the California Angels' Class A affiliate in Rohnert Park (near Santa Rosa).

"OK, in those days I went to a few arts events here and there, like a concert in San Francisco or Seattle. I wasn't against arts. I just didn't have the time--or, I suppose, I didn't take the time," he said.

But Jill Watkins did have more exposure to the arts while growing up in Anaheim.

"I did all the usual things so many little girls do--lessons in ballet and piano and violin. We would drive up for the L.A. shows, especially the Hollywood Bowl. But in Orange County then, all we seemed to have was Melodyland," she recalled.

"Later, like everyone else, I became too busy with building a career," said Jill, who majored in business management at Fullerton College and became an administrator in the commercial-leasing field, first in Los Angeles and then Orange County.

The turning point in her arts appreciation came in 1983. That's when the Newport Harbor Art Museum in Newport Beach started its Contemporary Club for--as the museum specifically billed it--"young professionals."

Jill was one of the first to join the club, mostly composed of attorneys, corporate executives and other professionals in their 30s and early 40s.

"We're all at the same stage with our lives. A lot of us know each other from tennis. All of us want to become active with arts--in some way that is meaningful as well as fun," said Jill, now on the board of directors of the club, which now has a dues-paying membership of 150.

Club participants are treated not only to special lectures, seminars and art showings, but also to visits to artists' studios and the homes of major private collectors. Members also sponsor fund-raising socials for the Newport museum, the county's most prestigious and one that aspires to national fame as a center for contemporary art.

And Michael Watkins himself became something of an arts convert. "Jill kept egging me. I really got to like going (to Newport museum functions)--and to learn and receive that kind of art exposure," he said.

But the Newport Harbor Art Museum isn't the only new arts involvement for the Watkinses (who were married in 1985).

Although they still commute to Los Angeles for Music Center productions and County Museum of Art shows, they have sharply increased their attendance at other arts events in Orange County, including the South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, the Laguna Art Museum and Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.

They are subscribers to the Orange County Performing Arts Center's premiere season of ballet, opera and musicals. They were also part of the high-fashion audience that attended the Los Angeles Philharmonic's opening-night concert Sept. 29 at the 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall.

And, in their residence in Newport Beach's Corona del Mar sector, they offer visitors not only a stunning ocean view but also a stylishly contemporary setting for ceramics and other art they have acquired in cultural meccas from Laguna Beach to Rome and Venice.

Not surprisingly, the emergence of such young affluent arts enthusiasts has caught the attention of societal analysts.

Indeed, some of these observers offer this sweeping view of cultural yuppies: that such arts involvement may be to counteract a creative void in the lives of this pre-middle-aged group.

Under this theory, the yuppie generation--raised on the American Dream doctrine of upward mobility and materialistic attainment--are already going through the throes of a "mid-life crisis" while still only in their 30s.

Psychologist Douglas LaBier of Washington in a recent Times interview, depicted this "younger careerist" generation as still driven to achieve high levels of success, competence and respect.

By the same token, LaBier--author of a new book dealing with yuppies ("Modern Madness: The Emotional Fallout of Success")--argues that this generation also shows "a desire for more (personal) fulfillment, meaning and pleasure."

Among the change-in-life moves made by some yuppies, LaBier observed, is toward greater involvement in the arts.

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