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The Times Orange County Poll : Orange County’s Performing Arts Center Is Drawing a Surprising Number of People--Given That Some Say the Arts Are Not Important in Their Lives

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

The Orange County Performing Arts Center, which celebrated its second anniversary Thursday, has made extraordinary inroads in attracting a regional audience that characterizes itself as largely lukewarm to performing arts and culture events, The Times Orange County Poll has found.

Four in 10 adult county residents surveyed said they have attended a performance at the Center at least once in the past year, and--in what is considered just as striking by arts experts--two-thirds of them returned to the Center.

Center President Thomas R. Kendrick said he was “very impressed” by the apparent market penetration. “It’s a phenomenal number that we had not heard before.”

Nevertheless, only about two in 10 adults surveyed said performing arts and cultural events are “very important” in their lives. Slightly more than half rated the arts as “somewhat important.” And roughly two in 10 said the arts are “not important.”

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The poll, conducted by Mark Baldassare & Associates, an Irvine public opinion research firm, also found that the Center drew people with household incomes of less than $50,000 in almost equal numbers as those with higher incomes--a proportion that held true even for repeating Center-goers. That indicates that the $73.3-million facility in Costa Mesa does not cater overwhelmingly to the rich, as commonly perceived.

Kendrick noted that the Center’s honeymoon with the public is reflected in attendance figures. “We have been operating at levels way beyond the national average,” he said, acknowledging that may simply mean that “a lot of people (are) coming to see what this place is all about.”

According to Center records, more than 1.2 million people have attended performances at the 2,994-seat Segerstrom Hall since it opened in September, 1986.

Philip Westin, who heads the South Bay Center for the Arts in Torrance, said: “I’m not surprised that only 23% of the population says the arts are very important to them--that’s about what you usually hear. But if, at the same time, 41% have set foot in the (Center) door , that is surprising.”

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Baldassare said: “People’s memories may be hazy about how many times they have attended in exactly the last 365 days. It’s probable that we’re picking up attendance over a longer period of time, possibly since the Center opened.”

The rate of repeaters drew particular interest from a dozen arts experts outside the county who were asked to analyze the poll.

“You’d have to conclude that people like what they’re getting at the Center,” said Sidney J. McQueen, immediate past president of the Assn. of College, University and Community Arts Administrators.

Robert Z. Elek, director of finances at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in Florida, agreed. “Those numbers tell you a lot, especially because the general interest level (in arts performances) is no better than average.”

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Kendrick was pleased with the 2-in-3 repeater rate indicated by the poll. “If we get 10 people in here and only two ever come back, it’s worth it,” he said.

If the Center can be said to cater to any particular group, according to the poll, it is well-educated women. Among those describing themselves as repeat Center-goers, 59% were women and 59% were college graduates.

The poll found that women in the county outnumbered men almost 2 to 1 in rating the arts “very important.” College graduates outnumbered high school graduates by the same ratio with that level of arts interest.

Indeed, education and gender--not wealth--were found to be the most important predictors of interest in the arts.

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“Wealth does not make for cultural snobbery in Orange County,” Baldassare noted. “Of the four big demographic determinants--age, income, education and gender--income is the least significant determinant of cultural interest. To some extent it determines how frequently people will go to the Performing Arts Center, but not necessarily what their interests are.”

The poll indicated that the richest and poorest county residents rated the importance of arts and culture almost identically. Twenty-two percent of those earning less than $35,000 said the arts were very important, while 24% of those earning more than $75,000 gave it that rating.

Although interest in the arts increases with education, it does not do so with age. Twenty-four percent of adults 18 to 34 years old consider the arts very important, as did 24% of those 55 or older. Only 20% of those from 35 to 54 rated their interest in the arts that highly.

Geography, however, was a significant predictor of cultural arts interest. Those living roughly south and east of the Costa Mesa Freeway described the arts as central to their lives by a 3-2 margin over those living roughly north and west of the freeway.

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The Center has drawn a higher proportion of its audience from the south county, making fewer inroads in the north. “My feeling,” said Baldassare, “is that (the Center) needs to make a breakthrough . . . to get people in the north county out of their normal trip patterns.”

When county residents were asked what kind of live performances they are most interested in attending, Broadway plays easily outdistanced all other choices. About 40% said they preferred Broadway plays, 27% preferred pop music, 14%, music; 10%, dance; 4%, opera, and 5% preferred other events.

These results came as no surprise to the arts experts, including Kendrick.

“You could have predicted that without a poll,” said Joseph Golden, author of “Olympus on Main Street,” a book about suburban performing arts centers. “Everybody wants Broadway plays.”

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The poll found that even among those who consider the arts very important and are presumably inclined to “high culture,” 43% preferred Broadway plays.

The major difference between the arts devotees’ taste and the county population’s at large, it turns out, has to do with pop music. Only 15% of the arts devotees prefer pop music, contrasted with 27% of all adults.

Oddly, the preference for “high culture” among county arts devotees is only marginally higher than for those who say the arts are not central to their lives. For instance, 18% of the culture buffs prefer classical music, compared to 14% of all adults; for dance, it is 15% compared to 10%. And while arts devotees are more likely to prefer opera--7% as opposed to 4%--the actual numbers are so small that the difference is negligible.

However, are the decidedly middlebrow tastes of the county at large being matched by the programs offered at the Center? And are Center leaders being accurate when they stress that they are operating “a cultural center” and not “an entertainment center”?

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According to figures provided by the Center, Broadway musicals were seen more often than anything else during the past 12 months, making up 34% of all performances. On the other hand, pop music of one sort or another made up only 11% of programming.

Classical music of various kinds was available 25% of the time; ballet, 18%, and opera, 6%. Together, the highbrow disciplines were presented considerably more often than county preferences would dictate. Yet, the county audience has responded.

“The most exciting thing we’ve seen,” said Kendrick, “has been the response to the ballet, which was expected to be very weak and has been quite strong.”

Many ballet performances, as well as opera and symphonic concerts, have done better at the box office than some of the Broadway musicals, he said.

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The overwhelming reason for not going to the Center more often was “no time,” according to the poll. Fully 45% of those surveyed volunteered that answer without it being defined as a choice. The other reasons--"too expensive,” “don’t like events,” “unaware of events"--each were cited by 18% of those polled. Only 1% said they consider the Center “too formal.”

“To me, ‘no time’ suggests ‘not important,’ ” said Baldassare, “because you make time for what is important.”

Still, national polls indicate that there has been a general decline in leisure time, coinciding with the rise of the two-income family. That trend is reflected in the region, Kendrick said.

“There’s a lot of ambition around here,” he said. “It’s a myth that everybody is out lying on the beach. I think we’re seeing a fast-paced, rapidly expanding, work-oriented life style, which helps explain that answer.”

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Baldassare said that expense, while not as important a factor, definitely affects Center attendance. “Our evidence suggests that at least among attendees, price becomes an issue--less so for someone who has never gone to the Center or has gone once, more so for repeat attendees.”

The fact that Center-goers buy 2.5 tickets per purchase, according to Center figures, tends to reflect the poll’s findings, since tickets may range as high as $45.

Nevertheless, several arts experts minimized ticket price as a significant determinant of attendance.

“Every empirical study I can find shows no correlation between ticket price and willingness to go to an event,” said Westin of the South Bay Center.

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“When people have an event they want to go to,” he added, “it doesn’t matter how high the ticket is. They’re there. If they don’t like something, you can’t give them a ticket. As Sol Hurok (the impresario) used to say, ‘If they don’t want to come, you can’t stop them.’ ”

Actually, Center ticket prices are comparable to those at other arts centers.

The top ticket price at the $57-million Tampa Bay center, for instance, is $35--roughly comparable to the Orange County center’s top ticket price of $38 for a Broadway musical. But, Elek of the Tampa center noted, the median household income in the Tampa Bay area is $14,000.

According to the Chapman Economic Forecast, median income in the county is projected to be $45,176 this year. On those terms, Elek said, Center tickets would seem “reasonably priced.”

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How the Poll Was Conducted

The Times Orange County Poll of 604 county adults was conducted by Mark Baldassare & Associates, an Irvine-based public opinion research firm, with field work by Discovery Research Group.

The survey was conducted Sept. 6-10 on weekend days and weekday nights, using a random sample of listed and unlisted telephone numbers.

The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points, which means that it is 95% certain that the results are within 4 percentage points of what they would be if every adult county resident were interviewed.

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CENTER OF ATTENTION / THE TIMES ORANGE COUNTY POLL PERFORMING ARTS CENTER ATTENDANCE

2nd Season 1st Season Type of Event Sept. ’87-Sept. ’88 Sept. ’86-Sept. ’87 Opera 36,504 49,509 Classical Music 158,069 154,108 Broadway Musicals 200,048 123,557 Ballet 115,666 48,071 Pop Music 74,424 41,141 Childrens Performances 90,000 72,000 Other 35,766 25,059 Totals 710,477 513,445

Source: Performing Arts Center PERFORMING ARTS CENTER ATTENDANCE Profiles of Attendance Groups

Only Repeated Once Never % College Graduate 59% 49% 42% % From South County 42 33 22 % Women 59 55 44 % Income $50,000 or more 47 46 39 % Arts “Very Important” 39 26 15

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Reasons for Not Attending Performances What is the main reason you did not go to more Orange County Performing Arts Center performances?

Never All Attendees Went Too Expensive 18% 25% 13% Don’t Like Events 18 8 24 Unaware of Events 18 13 21 Too Formal 1 1 1 No Time 45 52 41

Source: Times Orange County Poll

REPEAT ATTENDANCE “In the last year, how many times have you attended the Orange County Performing Arts Center?” Four in ten said they attended the Performing Arts Center: Never 59% Once 14% Repeat 27% Of those who attended, two-thirds came back for at least one more performance: Went once 35% Repeated 65% Source: Times Orange County Poll THE WISH LIST.. “What kind of live performances are you most interested in attending?” Interest in Broadway plays and pop music overshadows the classics. Broadway play 40% Pop Music 27% Classical music 14% Dance 10% Opera 4% Other 5% Source: Times Orange County Poll

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