The Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ $15-million bet on the future of culture in Orange County marks its first anniversary this weekend.
The Julianne and George Argyros Plaza opened on Oct. 28, 2017, with 11 hours of pomp, partying, speeches, music and a dance company that defied gravity on a wall high above the crowd. Helped in part by a gift from the Argyros family, the Segerstrom Center’s rather drab and empty public plaza was transformed into an attractive and inviting outdoor space with an imposing stage, plenty of seating, a dramatic fountain and many other amenities, all planned to send a message: “linger here for a while.”
“We’re going to bring in thousands of people who have never been here before,” said Segerstrom Center president Terry Dwyer days before the opening. “We’re doing things to make sure they’re from diverse areas within the county. And we’re trying to give them reasons to stick around.”
One year later, as the Segerstrom Center prepares to celebrate the anniversary with “Fall for All,” a free Saturday event on the plaza, Dwyer and his colleagues can point to several promises fulfilled.
The plaza hosted over 125 performances in the last year, occupying more than the 40 weekends that Dwyer had predicted the space would be active.
And diversity was certainly on display: The Mexican Consulate recently staged an impressive concert in honor of Mexican Independence Day; military veterans were honored with a Veterans Day event. In January, the plaza closed out the holiday season on Three Kings Day with lively music, a community procession, Rosca de Reyes (Kings’ Cake), and storytelling. A jazz series was popular. So was Yappy Hour (a happy hour for people with pooches), a Chinese kite festival and a cultural event for the Persian community.
“A lot of people comment that there is a new kind of energy permeating the campus and the Center,” Dwyer said in an interview on Monday with Voice of OC. “Certainly the events on the plaza are contributing to that.” So are the new amenities that make the hanging out on the plaza, whether for an event or for other reasons, more pleasant: free WiFi, a casual restaurant that does takeout, and an outdoor bar.
From the beginning, Dwyer and his team wanted events on the plaza to be decided by the community, even though the costs of supporting each performance come out of the Segerstrom Center’s budget.
“We always wanted the community to have a say in what’s going on out there,” said Jason Holland, the Center’s vice president of community engagement. “We wanted it to answer the needs and desires of many different constituencies.”
In addition to meeting with community groups, the Center conducts a regular survey, Holland said. “It gives us a finger on the pulse of what the community is looking for and what they like.”
25 to 30 percent are new to the place
Dwyer and Holland emphasized that the plaza’s programming falls under the realm of community service. Marketing the Center’s indoor series to those who come to the plaza for free events was never part of the plan.
“That isn’t the goal for the space,” Holland said. “It’s not part of the mandate for me and my team.”
Dwyer added that his people haven’t been monitoring the crossover traffic – plaza-goers that turn into ticket buyers – in any concerted way.
“That is an almost impossible question to answer,” Dwyer said of crossover patrons. “We’re estimating that 25 to 30 percent of people going to plaza events are new attendees to the campus. Anecdotally, we know that people who attend performances in Segerstrom Hall and the concert hall are really appreciative of the plaza as an added value to their experiences. All of these factors contribute to not just increased sales but more sustainable sales.”
Around the country, many arts institutions have developed ambitious plans to be more interactive with their communities, part of a growing movement to make the performing arts more accessible and universal.
“I would say there is a nationwide effort to figure out how to change in response to changes in our society and our economic and social environment,” Dwyer said before the plaza opened last year. “It has accelerated in the last decade.”
Dwyer acknowledged that the demographic composition of Orange County has altered rapidly in the last generation. A place with a 78.6 percent white majority in 1990 has become more than half Hispanic and Asian, according to the 2010 census.
The Segerstrom Center’s role in its immediate community has also changed as the neighborhood around it transformed in the three decades since it opened. When the 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall hosted its first event in 1986 there was still plenty of farmland in the vicinity. Now, according to ESR Business Analysts, there are 600 businesses, 65,000 employees, 10 hotels and 26,000 residents within walking distance of the Segerstrom Center/South Coast Plaza area.
Argyros Plaza is part of a national trend. As New York’s Lincoln Center, Washington’s Kennedy Center, the Los Angeles Music Center and other big performing-arts complexes built in the 1960s entered middle age, certain design shortcomings began to be identified. One common problem: Their public plazas were often overly large and barren, with no human scale or sense of connectivity to their cavernous halls.
“A lot of these bigger venues are trying to reinvent themselves,” said Elena Madison, vice president of the Project for Public Spaces. “Demographics are changing. They really are looking at opportunities to try and attract new audiences, even if they’re not paying audiences.”
Soft-sell marketing tool
Turning casual visitors into patrons would be nice. The Center’s tax forms reflect a growing dependence on earned income – from 56 percent of total revenue in 2013 to 66 percent in 2016. In an era of philanthropic uncertainty and “donor burnout,” ticket sales and other forms of earned income gain increased importance. As much as Dwyer and Holland ascribe altruistic ends to the plaza’s goals, the bottom line for any performing arts center is getting butts in seats.
Still, as a marketing tool, the plaza is definitely a very soft sell.
“There is information available” on the plaza for upcoming performances, Dwyer said. “Occasionally there will be (an event promotion) projected on the wall. But overall, we are trying to create an experience that isn’t about commerce but about community and connecting. We get the word out (about plaza events) largely through social media. It’s a little different from the inside experience.”
Holland believes the most important goal of a public arts plaza is much bigger than commerce or community service.
“Arts organizations have to respond to a changing world in a nimble and sustainable way and act as a lifeline to the community. I see an increasing need for people to feel connected to one another. It’s nice to be able to use the arts as a bridge to join people who might otherwise have a large gulf between them. The more we learn about each other’s traditions, the more we realize what we all have in common.”
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.