By BRETT CAMPBELL
October 10, 2006; Page D6
The Wall Street Journal
Costa Mesa, Calif.
Visitors flying into Orange County's John Wayne International Airport are greeted by a nine-foot-tall bronze statue of the Duke, in full western garb. The kitschy cowboy symbolizes the stereotype of arts and culture in this sprawling suburbia south of Los Angeles: that of a culturally bereft landscape of commuter subdivisions, office parks, multilane highways, and shopping centers -- "twenty-seven cities in search of a downtown," as Pacific Symphony music director Carl St. Clair puts it.
That image is becoming outdated, however. As the region rapidly grows and diversifies, its ambitious performing-arts institutions are striving to attain major-league status. In September, the new Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall opened in Costa Mesa as part of the Orange County Performing Arts Center campus, an attempt to use culture to create a true urban focal point for an area long perceived to be lacking one. The hall is a valuable addition to Southern California arts, but can it help fulfill such lofty ambitions?
The handsome concert hall itself -- blond maple walls and silver-leafed canopy and organ pipes -- impressed Thomas Aujero Small, editor of the Journal of the Architectural Foundation of Los Angeles, who's heard classical music in many of the world's finest concert halls. "I liked the contrast between high-tech, 21st-century materials and the warm, organic feeling," said Mr. Small, who conducted architectural tours of the building. "I thought of Fritz Lang's movie 'Metropolis' -- organic and sexy, yet metallic and silvery." Its traditional horseshoe shape and curvy box balconies reminded him a bit of Rome's Teatro Argentina.
Who will the new hall serve? By most traditional standards, it's a great success: opulent, flexible, acoustically superior. The PSO surely deserved a home whose quality matched its ambitions. The building will elevate the region's artistic standards and, who knows, may even exert some centripetal urban force upon a sprawling area that needs such focus.
But such massive projects tend to soak up a community's arts support, to the detriment of smaller operations, and often become so expensive to run that only the big resident or imported groups can afford the rent. Already there's concern that the parade of big touring shows needed to pay the bills may crowd out some local productions.
I can't help wondering what effect that $200 million would have had on Orange County arts if a portion had been distributed, instead, to many more local, grassroots groups creating contemporary, edgy, exploratory art. Suppose the remainder had been used to subsidize deep ticket discounts and expand the Orange County Performing Art Center's programs to attract younger and nontraditional audiences -- who, studies show, fear high ticket prices far more than they do challenging art. In the long run, such investments might have done more for the area's artistic vitality than a glittering temple of high-end arts. But who's willing to pay for them?
Mr. Campbell covers West Coast performing arts for the Journal.
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