A Change in Fortunes for O.C. Arts

Times Staff Writers

Friday’s opening of Orange County’s Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall represents more than the most ambitious bid yet for world-class cultural cachet in an area long dogged by stereotypes of vanilla sprawl and the smug, provincial rich.

The $200-million music palace also marks a juncture of two of the county’s great fortunes, one built on plowed-over lima bean fields and the other on microchips.

It was old-money exemplar Henry Segerstrom who in the 1960s transformed his family’s Costa Mesa agricultural fields into an upscale shopping mecca, South Coast Plaza, and in the next two decades spearheaded the creation of an arts hub across the street that includes the Orange County Performing Arts Center and South Coast Repertory.


Now the patrician, silver-haired real estate developer, at 83, has given the land and $50 million for the center’s expansion, which includes a 2,000-seat concert hall that bears the name of Segerstrom’s late wife, Renee.

But the project, built with private funds, provides a snapshot of how the county’s wealth and largesse -- long the province of such real estate kings as Segerstrom -- now derives in no small measure from its flourishing tech industry.

Microchip billionaire Henry Samueli of Broadcom Corp. gave $10 million, his founding partner Henry T. Nicholas III donated $3.8 million and Paul Folino of Emulex Corp. added $1 million after giving $10 million to South Coast Repertory.

The concert hall also underscores the county’s rapid maturation from a bedroom community in the shadow of Los Angeles to a self-contained universe. With the new building, which will include the multipurpose, 500-seat Samueli Theater, the arts district will now boast seven performance stages, two more than the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles.

“I think it’s an important evolution,” Samueli, 51, said of Orange County’s expanding philanthropic scene. “You need the fresh blood to come in. We’re trying to make a statement there, trying to pull in the next generation to take over for the Segerstroms.”

The Segerstrom imprint has been a large one. A World War II veteran who took shrapnel in his arm in France and graduated from Stanford University, Henry Segerstrom is a hands-on arts patron, commissioning world-famous sculptors to create outdoor works, handpicking the architect for the new hall, Cesar Pelli, and collaborating with him on design decisions.

“He has a very sharp eye and a very refined aesthetic sense,” Pelli said.

Segerstrom, now remarried, said the drive for the original Performing Arts Center came from “the pioneer group in the community. A lot of them had lived here since the ‘30s and ‘40s.”

Henry Samueli, co-founder of Irvine-based Broadcom, has become a standard-bearer of the new philanthropists.

He said his Jewish background formed the wellspring of his charitable impulse. He added that he and his wife, Susan, wanted to contribute while they were young.

“Most wealthy people wait until two years before they’re dead to give it away,” he said.

Since Broadcom, the microchip pioneer, went public in the late 1990s and made them super-rich overnight, Henry and Susan Samueli have spread more than $160 million over a range of causes including large gifts to Jewish centers, medical research, and the engineering schools at UCLA and UC Irvine.

“It’s without precedent in Orange County for anybody to be able to give so much to so many organizations,” said Mark Chapin Johnson, former head of fundraising for the new concert hall. “He’s got a much wider breadth and depth of interest than you might expect that high-tech image to possess.”

A former professor of electrical engineering at UCLA who grew up stocking the shelves of his parents’ Los Angeles liquor store, Samueli described himself as a “traditional engineering nerd” and said he did not attend his first opera until moving to Orange County in the 1990s.

He and his wife became opera buffs and gave heavily to financially strapped Opera Pacific, which performs in the Performing Arts Center’s original 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall. Samueli said his 11-year-old daughter is studying the art.

Samueli’s parents were Polish immigrants who arrived destitute in the United States after surviving the Holocaust. Ranked in Forbes in 2005 as the world’s 164th richest man, Samueli, who also owns the Anaheim Ducks hockey franchise, said he had tried in recent years to “become less laser-focused on the engineering side.”

Samueli, who practices Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” on his guitar in his spare time, said that while education remains his primary philanthropic passion, the arts create “a well-balanced culture” that draws people to an area.

“When you’re recruiting people to come work for Broadcom, you want to create an attractive environment,” Samueli said. “You have to have the whole package here.”

He said Orange County transcended TV stereotypes of “rich, selfish, plastic, shallow people,” and said he hoped his gift encouraged other wealthy residents to think charitably.

Traditionally, the big names in local philanthropy -- Donald Bren, Joan Irvine Smith, George Argyros, William Lyon -- have been bound, in one way or another, to real estate fortunes.

“The old-line families, there are fewer of them; real estate is almost built out in this county,” said Jerry Mandel, former president of the Orange County Performing Arts Center. “The high-tech is the future, and the future of philanthropy, and you’re starting to see it.”

The Irvine Spectrum and the research park next to UC Irvine have made Orange County a magnet for high-tech companies.

Said Gary Phillips, chairman of a Los Angeles firm that supervised the fundraising campaign for the original Performing Arts Center in the 1980s: “At the time the center was built, you could probably count up to 20 individuals of financial means and influence in the county. It’s no longer the top 20. It’s the top 200.”

As Orange County struggles to shake off its longtime image as a wealthy but philanthropically stingy community, it remains unclear whether Samueli’s giving will compel many wealthy donors of his generation to follow, said Mark Petracca, chairman of the political science department at UC Irvine.

“Is it really going to play out?” Petracca said. “Maybe, in part for competitive purposes. ‘Samueli gave a theater, I’ll build a museum.’ Will it send a message to people who might be on the cusp, getting [them] to the point where they say, ‘I have enough for me, maybe I’ll do something for somebody else’? “

Unlike old fortunes rooted in the land, Petracca said, high-tech is easily transportable. “He could just as easily pick up his company and move someplace else, notwithstanding that he probably likes living here,” he said of Samueli, adding that his giving embodies “the importance of making a commitment to community.”

Even as the last 20 years have seen arts venues in Orange County multiply, Petracca said he worried that California’s cuts in arts funding from kindergarten to high school might dry up future audiences and donors.

“They struggle to come up with nickels and dimes just to give [students] a half-hour a month of music appreciation,” Petracca said. “If you don’t appreciate this stuff as a young person, when you turn 40 you’re going to all of a sudden get a jones for Mozart? It isn’t going to happen.”

Other challenges loom. Despite Orange County’s diversity, with Asian and Latino populations together outnumbering whites, white faces continue to dominate arts audiences, as well as the boards that comprise much of the donor pool.

“The county certainly needs to figure out how to represent society today,” said Mark Baldassare, a former UC Irvine professor and now research director at a San Francisco think tank. Pointing to the arts district, he added, “To the extent Latinos and Asians get incorporated into the arts and culture, that’s going to be very important to how lasting and important those buildings actually are.”