Irvine Arts Leader Aims to Create a Scene : Culture: Henry Korn is working to rebuild a public arts program in the mecca of master planning. The effort is part of a nationwide trend to improve the quality of life.


So why would an arts administrator leave Santa Monica, with one of the most active and diverse cultural scenes in Southern California, for the antiseptic environs of Irvine?

For the challenge, of course, answers Henry Korn, now in his second week as Irvine’s cultural affairs manager.

In the face of Irvine-esque “sameness of people’s every day experience,” the arts can “invest a community with a sense of identity,” Korn said. “If ever there was a place that needed it,” he adds, “it was sure going to be Irvine.”

If he is daunted by the thought of trying to bring a spark of culture--with its implicit promises of spontaneity and individual expression--to the mecca of master planning, he doesn’t let on. In fact, he seems to relish it.


“The part about (arts administration) that interests me the most is the beginning of things because that’s when the creative opportunities are the greatest,” Korn said. “That’s when you’re dreaming the dreams.”

Korn’s appointment is the most concrete step yet in Irvine’s quest to establish a local arts agency. After years of reports, studies and committee meetings, a Cultural Affairs Commission was appointed earlier this year. Commission members are now working with Korn to present a detailed funding plan to the City Council, possibly by July.

The agency’s mission is still being defined, but its primary tasks probably will include giving grants to local arts groups, rebuilding a public arts program, establishing a mechanism to raise private funds, lending a hand in local arts education, and administering the existing Irvine Fine Arts Center.

Several Orange County cities already have arts agencies, and the county itself is thinking about establishing one. These efforts are part of a larger trend, according to Thomas Wolf, a consultant whose Massachusetts-based Wolf Organization prepared a blueprint for Irvine’s proposed agency.

“In the last two decades, the local arts agency movement has grown from virtually nothing to a movement which is very large,” Wolf said this week. “Cities of even moderate size now generally are developing local arts councils.” Wolf said economic factors play as big a role in the movement as a desire to improve the quality of life: Cities have noted that “cultural amenities” are effective incentives for attracting businesses, as well as high-income and well-educated residents.

Wolf sees the role of local agencies gaining in importance as state and federal arts support hits a ceiling. “Since the beginning of the ‘80s, the real growth explosions of new monies have been at the local level,” he said. Federal and state support have “really capped, because there’s a huge federal deficit. The states are facing big deficits.”

The soft-spoken Korn, 44, continues to live in Los Angeles with his wife Donna Stein, an independent exhibition organizer (she is bringing parts of the Berlin Wall to Los Angeles), and their 3-year-old daughter, Sophie. An author, Korn is currently working on a book of fiction and takes part in a weekly comedy writing workshop with veteran TV writer Danny Simon, brother of playwright Neil.

Korn was hailed in Santa Monica for his handling of the city’s public arts program, which installed 15 public sculptures during his four-year tenure, and for the success of the Santa Monica Art Foundation, which raised $250,000 from the business community in three years.

Among his other accomplishments: administration of an active performing arts program, including free outdoor theater; a literature program that, among other things, put poetry on the inside walls of city buses; a video art program that broadcast artists’ works on the city-run public access channel, and creation of a city art collection.

“I think a number of these things are applicable to Irvine,” Korn said.

While he enjoyed his work in Santa Monica, he says he felt he had fulfilled his goals there and was ready to move on. “There are lots of ‘maintainers’ in the world,” he notes. “I’m not a maintainer.”

One obstacle he acknowledges in Irvine is its youth and affluence. The cost of housing is not exactly within the reach of most artists, and because there are few older buildings, inexpensive studio space can be hard to find. According to the Wolf Organization report, studio rentals in Irvine can run three times as high as equivalent space in Costa Mesa.

Still, Korn says, “we hope to create a situation hospitable to an artists’ community,” perhaps by providing employment for artists and arts professionals through residencies and commissions, and through jobs at the Fine Arts Center and through the public schools.

“We can perhaps even create working spaces for artists,” he said. The Wolf report suggests expanding the Fine Arts Center to accommodate private studios or creating some sort of partnership with UC Irvine. Korn sees the university as one of the city’s attributes both as a source of cultural expertise and as a partner in arts ventures. Already, the city and UCI have joined to build the Irvine Theatre, due to open in October.

And, even as he jokes about Irvine’s reputation as a middle-class fortress of enforced architectural uniformity, Korn says he has found Irvine residents to be open and enthusiastic about creating a cultural scene.

“I don’t think you can come to any conclusions about people from the outsides of their houses,” he said. “The built environment has been defined by developers and corporate institutions.

“Creativity is meaningless without receptivity. . . . My sense is that Irvine has a very well-developed degree of receptivity.”