Faux firs provide a blank canvas for area arts groups in South Coast Plaza’s Pavilion of Holiday Trees

Kelsey O'Brien, right,
Kelsey O’Brien, right, a South Coast Plaza social media specialist, shows Travel Costa Mesa’s Paulette Lombardi-Fries, center, and Jenny Wedge some of the 36 holiday trees decorated by regional, national and global arts institutions in Costa Mesa on Friday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

While shoppers have been allowed to return to South Coast Plaza, the center’s traditional schedule of wintertime festivities — photos with Santa, hot cocoa and cider, live carolers — was looking like another unfortunate victim of the coronavirus pandemic.

But with some quick thinking, officials at the Costa Mesa shopping mecca are finding new, meaningful ways to make the holiday season merry and bright, including an inaugural event that opens to the public Saturday.

“Pavilion of Holiday Trees” is a showcase of 36 fir trees decorated by area arts organizations in seasonal themes that convey the philosophy, mission and programs of the groups that created them.

The Orange County Museum of Art, for example, provided an entry decorated in shades of navy blue and metallic inspired by mixed-media artist Alexandra Grant’s work “She said to Creon,” on display at the museum through June 6.

LACMA channeled its iconic outdoor sculpture “Urban Light” by Chris Burden — an artfully arranged display of 206 lampposts — to create a tree festooned with lanterns.

Maggie Chen takes photos of some of the 36 holiday trees at South Coast Plaza.
Maggie Chen takes photos of some of the 36 holiday trees at South Coast Plaza.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Debra Gunn Downing, South Coast Plaza’s executive director of marketing, said officials were thinking of how to make the holidays come alive for visitors given current restrictions against large-scale gatherings.

“We had an idea to do something that would honor arts organizations — and that seed of an idea turned into all this,” she said Friday. “We reached out to 50 art organizations in Southern California and a few international ones. The response was overwhelming.”

The Crystal Cove Conservancy announced this week that what would have been the 24th annual tree lighting and holiday bazaar has been canceled.

For a venue, organizers looked to South Coast Plaza’s open-air Pavilion, a parking structure near Nordstrom converted in August into an open-air, appointment-only shopping experience. It was the perfect place for an in-person event with limited attendance.

“We wanted to do something that would represent the holiday spirit but would be safe,” Gunn Downing said. “This allows us to offer something with our usual style, despite the COVID environment.”

Each tree will be on display through Dec. 4, when three winners will be named and awarded cash prizes benefitting their organizations. An online auction will let people bid on the displays, with 100% of the proceeds going to the group that designed the tree. Trees will be delivered up to a 100-mile radius.

“I think the public is going to be very pleasantly surprised when they see them,” Gunn Downing said. “They are just visually arresting. But then you’ll get so much more than the tree.”

To sweeten the deal, many organizations arranged special treats, tickets and gift cards among the boughs of the displays.

The announcement by Gov. Gavin Newsom came Friday in tandem with Washington and Oregon. In Orange County, 598 new COVID-19 cases were reported, bringing the total numbers of cases to 64,058.

An entry from Laguna Beach’s Pageant of the Masters, produced by the nonprofit Festival of the Arts, features 24 mini-masterpieces hand painted by Director Diane Challis Davy as well as VIP tickets to next year’s “Made in America” event and a behind-the-scenes tour for six.

The Newport Beach Film Festival decorated "The Endless Summer" holiday tree.
The Newport Beach Film Festival decorated “The Endless Summer” holiday tree, named after the film “A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story.”
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Organizers of the Newport Beach Film Festival designed a surfer-themed display inspired by this year’s opening film “A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story,” about two surfers on a quest for the perfect wave. It includes a movie poster autographed by Brown and two all-access passes to the 2021 festival.

The Newport Beach Film Festival is pivoting again in response to the coronavirus pandemic, with a premiere held drive-in style next week plus a virtual Lifetime Achievement ceremony that can hold cinephiles over until the full festival can move ahead.

Just a few trees over, an oceanic tree recognizes Laguna Beach artist and conservationist Robert Wyland — star of the PBS show “Wyland’s Art Studio” — and offers the winning bidder a whale watching excursion with the artist himself.

A major participant in the event, Segerstrom Center for the Arts and several of its guilds submitted entries that give visitors a peek at the many aspects of the nonprofits programs and offerings. Themes include creative takes on “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker” and “Star Light, Star Bright.”

A Christmas tree by Beverly Sills.
A Christmas tree by Beverly Sills, one of the largest Guilds chapters of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, is inspired by the musical “Miss Saigon.”
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Segerstrom Center President Casey Reitz said volunteers had a blast creating tributes to the ballet, Broadway and the power of imagination.

“This is such a gracious and touching gesture on the part of South Coast Plaza to local arts organizations — and at such a crucial time for us,” Reitz said by email. “We hope that these works of art bring joy to many people. What a wonderful and encouraging way for us to start the holidays.”

Located in South Coast Plaza’s Pavilion in the north parking structure, the exhibition is free and open to the public during the center’s regular shopping hours. The online auction goes live Saturday at

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