Setting the Stage for Growth : New Programs, Expansions and Endowments Show Confidence in the O.C. Arts Scene Despite the Bankruptcy


It’s not going to be the most exciting, expansive year in the local arts community. Unlike last year, no spanking-new cultural venues are expected to sprout. But judging from a handful of developments planned, as well as interviews with arts leaders, there’s growing confidence in the region’s economic recovery.

“I’m feeling very optimistic about the economy and Orange County as a whole,” said Tom Tomlinson, president of the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. “I think the future is very strong, and I believe the center and all nonprofit [arts groups] will continue to thrive as long as they continue to meet community needs.”

Tomlinson bases his assessment on various local economic studies that predict job growth and increases in the number of “arts-buying households.”


His one caveat is the county bankruptcy, which he believes has eroded consumer confidence and will continue to do so for a while. But if county officials make the proper decisions to deal with the situation, he said, and “as long as the county [government] gets through the next six months [successfully], it’s not a situation that will have enormous, long, long-term effects.”

With all that in mind, the center expects to meet its goal of building its endowment to $15 million by the end of 1996, Tomlinson said. The endowment, boosted by April’s $2.8-million gift from philanthropist William J. Gillespie, now stands at $12 million in cash and pledges.

“I’m very encouraged that $15 million [by December] is not an enormously optimistic goal,” Tomlinson said.

A fatter endowment is necessary for the center to progress with plans to construct a second theater. By June, feasibility studies should be completed to determine the cost of expansion and operation of a second theater as well as the potential for raising funds for the facility, Tomlinson said.

Previous studies suggest that groundbreaking could begin before the end of the century, Tomlinson said, “but it’s too early to tell how it will all turn out.”

The center’s ballyhooed, yearlong 10th anniversary celebration, culminating in September, should help drum up enthusiasm and funds for the expansion, officials say.


One of several local performing and presenting organizations likely to benefit from an expanded center with a less-crowded booking schedule--the Philharmonic Society of Orange County--has growth of its own planned for 1996.

With about 45 programs lined up, the society will offer its largest season ever, up about five programs from last year. “And we’re adding on some types of music that we’ve never done before,” said Dean Corey, the society’s executive director.

The Philharmonic Society already announced its presentation of “The Cave,” the Steve Reich multimedia video opera slated for 1997 as part of its 1996-97 season.

Corey did not want to say what other types of music the society might present until the remainder of its coming season is announced in March. He explained, however, that the expansion is due to the society’s new financial stability and strong ticket sales of late.

“By going to more diverse programming,” he said, “we won’t be taxing any one particular market sector.”

Newport Harbor Art Museum should be able to proceed with its expansion into the former library next door, provided that city officials approve the yet-to-be-finalized design.


Museum officials have no doubts, however, that they can win the approval, raise another $1.2 million on top of the $2 million already given or promised and begin the expansion’s first phase sometime in the spring, said board president James V. Selna. The first phase entails gutting the museum’s current facility and converting it entirely into gallery space.

Meanwhile, the museum, which has been without a development director for months, was to have filled the position--critical to any major fund-raising campaign--by today, Selna said. He would not say whether the museum will rehire director Michael Botwinick, whose five-year contract is believed to expire this month.

Also, rumblings of a merger between Newport Harbor and Laguna Art Museum have resurfaced, even though sources close to both institutions said in September that a recent proposal to merge was scotched. Selna again refused to comment on the subject.

Expansion is also on tap for the Santa Ana-based Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, which plans to move into a vastly larger space in September, said Mike McGee, board president. The long-delayed move will put the center in downtown Santa Ana’s Artists Village, the relatively new artists colony.

Although Santa Ana is less known for its galleries and resident artists than, say, Laguna Beach, McGee believes the area will gain momentum once the Center for Contemporary Art moves in and a planned Cal State Fullerton graduate art student center opens in fall 1997.

Cal State Fullerton plans to operate a gallery program of the same professional caliber it now runs on campus, McGee said, plus a black-box theater, a sales-rental gallery and an artists-in-residence program. He notes that crowds of 400 and up have attended Artists Village gallery openings.


“At this point,” he said, “I feel really positive about what’s going on, considering that [Cal State Fullerton] and OCCCA are not even there yet.”


In other news, pop fans will have one more, albeit familiar, place to go when the former Celebrity Theatre reopens in Anaheim as the Freedman Forum Concert Theatre. The first concert is Jan. 24 with Kenny Rogers.

In February, Arts Orange County, the countywide arts agency, plans to unveil OC Arts Net, an Internet web page with information about local arts groups’ activities.

Initially, about a dozen groups will be on the site, but plans call for another 30 or 40 to jump on within the next 18 months, said Arts OC executive director Bonnie Brittain Hall.

In August, the new Huntington Beach Art Center expects to have finalized a formal agreement between the center’s foundation and the city of Huntington Beach that would ensure funding levels for the next five years, at least.

The agreement would “commit the city to a minimum of five years of funding the center at a minimum level of $81,000 annually,” said Ron Hagan, the city’s community services director. The center’s foundation would have to contribute at least $250,000 per year, Hagan said, and the center itself would have to generate the remainder of its total budget, about $80,000 a year.


The center, which opened in March, already had a proposed budget reduced by $150,000 to $400,000, and two part-time staff positions were eliminated.

The new agreement, Hagan said, would “give us some breathing room to allow us concentrate on building an audience and enhancing support for the center, rather than worrying about where the next dollar is coming from.” A draft of the agreement is expected early this month.

On the downside, Laguna Playhouse does not expect to open its second theater this year as hoped. But don’t blame the economy, said executive director Richard Stein.

“I’d have to say it has more to do with our finding the right donor who is interested and willing to make a naming gift”--that is, $1 million in exchange for his or her name on the theater. “We’ve been successful in attracting a significant number of smaller gifts,” Stein said, “but not the large naming gift we had hoped for.”