Should Imagination Celebration be Scrapped or Revived?

The City of Irvine hosts a community drawing as a part of the annual Imagination Celebration. (Photo courtesy of the City of Irvine)

Imagination Celebration, a gargantuan annual spring festival that celebrates the arts throughout Orange County and emphasizes the creativity of kids, will be marking its 34th year in 2019.

If that means nothing to you, then you’re not alone. Despite its long history in Orange County, the event has long suffered from a visibility problem.

On paper, it sounds like a terrific idea.

“Imagination Celebration dynamically connects the community, arts organizations, universities, and Orange County students through meaningful arts experiences,” says the announcement on the event’s web page.

But it’s slightly fuzzy around the edges, isn’t it? Notice what’s missing. How are all these groups “dynamically” connected? And what constitutes a “meaningful experience” anyhow?

That description and the questions it engenders are at the core of Imagination Celebration’s problem: nobody knows exactly what it should be.

It has grown to mammoth proportions. Next spring, I.C. will last well over a month and feature more than 100 events, most of them free, in 29 Orange County communities.

Yet something that should be a galvanizing and unifying experience for Orange County’s arts and educational communities suffers from a failure to communicate its real purpose. It’s a lost opportunity in a realm that can’t afford to squander them.

The most immediate problem is that Imagination Celebration is chronically under-financed and not well publicized, according to one of its sponsoring institutions.

“It’s not adequately funded, and not as heavily marketed as it might be,” said Richard Stein, executive director of Arts Orange County, which co-produces Imagination Celebration with the Orange County Department of Education. “In the old days, when the Orange County Performing Arts Center (produced) it, they pumped a lot more dollars into it. They had full-time staff devoted to it, and it was a much more well-publicized thing.”

‘IT CAUGHT ON LIKE WILDFIRE FOR A WHILE’

To understand the present state of Imagination Celebration, it’s necessary to go back to its beginnings.

The original Imagination Celebration was held at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. back in 1977. Smaller versions were held in other cities. It’s described on the Kennedy Center’s website as “a network of performing arts festivals that celebrates and showcases young people and the arts.”

The original I.C.’s goals were laudable and lofty: to demonstrate the value of the arts as a learning tool; to develop partnerships among the community’s cultural community schools, businesses, professional organizations and local government; to stimulate imagination and creativity in young people; and to recognize their achievements.

Imagination Celebration was brought to Orange County by the late Thomas Kendrick, the founding president of the Orange County Performing Arts Center (now called the Segerstrom Center for the Arts). Soon after Kendrick arrived to oversee the Center’s 1986 opening, he set the wheels in motion to establish Orange County’s first annual Imagination Celebration Festival, an imitation of the more established event in Washington.

In its second year, the Performing Arts Center became an I.C. festival site for the first time. It was touted as a significant event both locally and across the nation. “Heralded by organizers as Orange County’s biggest annual ‘cultural mobilization,’ this Imagination Celebration is one of 26 such festivals being held for this year under auspices of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington,” The Los Angeles Times reported.

Over the festival’s first few seasons in Orange County, it developed an approach that was uniquely its own. “The others all take place at one site – the county fairgrounds or a performance hall or a museum; this one developed as a countywide event with five malls participating, many arts organizations and the school district,” said Marilyn Nielsen, then chair of the Imagination Celebration Executive Committee, to Orange Coast magazine in April 1993.

Musco Center of the Arts executive director Richard Bryant, who headed marketing and public relations at the Orange County Performing Arts Center under Kendrick, said the Imagination Celebration enjoyed one huge benefit in the early days that it no longer has.

“We went out and found significant media sponsors. The Los Angeles Times was a huge media sponsor and put a terrific amount of time and resources into (publicizing Imagination Celebration). We also got some of the big L.A. radio stations interested. The media sponsorships were crucial to our success. That was a good will thing. We didn’t pay for any of it.”

Kendrick’s arts center stayed heavily involved in I.C. over the next few years, holding a culminating event each year in 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall.

“It caught on like wildfire for a while,” said Mary Lyons, who chaired Imagination Celebration for five years early in its Orange County life. “There are many of these across the country, and they all did well. People from different cities talked back and forth about it all the time. What everybody began to understand is that you could do whatever you wanted to, as long as there was community interest.”

After a few years, problems began to surface, Lyons said. She believes the change in attitude happened after Kendrick was replaced as president of the Orange County Performing Arts Center by Tom Tomlinson in October, 1993.

“The Center was becoming disenchanted. It felt that everything should happen there and not get spread out in the community. That was just wrong – Imagination Celebration was all about going out into the community.”

Stein corroborated Lyons’ recollection. “I think the change (in the Segerstrom Center’s attitude) had to do in part with the fact that it wasn’t all about them. In those days, that didn’t go over well with some of the folks there. When Tom Tomlinson came in, he didn’t last. One of the issues was that he wanted to take a more populist approach and that didn’t sit well with the board at the time.”

Even without OCPAC’s participation, Imagination Celebration thrived for a while. The size and scope of the festival reached a peak in 2009, when it hosted more than 100 events and drew the participation of more than 50 libraries as well as dozens of schools. The festival received a substantial grant that year from Target, which has since stopped sponsoring cultural events. The Orange County Register also ended its sponsorship of the event around that time.

These days the festival is more modest in scope, Stein said. “We have a couple of grants, but there’s not a lot holding it up. The Orange County Department of Education puts a little money into it. I would say our total budget for next year is between $50,000 and $75,000.”

SEGERSTROM CENTER IS INTERESTED, BUT WHERE’S THE MONEY?

To drum up early support for next year’s Imagination Celebration, Arts OC held a fall mixer on Nov. 15.

Stein’s group presented opportunities for individual artists as well as small and large organizations to participate in the festival. The festival’s marquee events such as OC Día del Niño/Day of the Child and 1000 Pieces of Art are the perennial big attractions.

The 1000 Pieces of Art Exhibition showcases student artists at the only countywide, juried art show for Pre-K through 12th grade entrants. Categories include the usual traditional forms as well as photography; digital and graphic design have been added. The event is free to the public at the South Coast Plaza Crate & Barrel Wing.

“Our main focus in the last few years has been on ‘1000 Pieces of Art,’” said Steve Venz, Visual and Performing Arts Coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education. “We like it because it’s an event that recognizes children throughout the county and connects the kids with arts and arts education.”

OC Día del Niño/Day of the Child is a free family arts festival that celebrates children, develops their natural creativity and encourages continuing participation in the arts. Now in its eighth year, OC Día del Niño features two days of interactive activities and performances by professional artists, arts organizations, schools and community groups that can be enjoyed by children of all ages and skill levels.

The 2019 OC Día del Niño festival will take place on Saturday, April 13 and Sunday, April 14 at the OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Stein said OC Día del Niño is the festival’s most popular show partly because it’s well funded. “We receive separate funding for it, an NEA grant. That has enabled us to add it into the mix and grow it. More than 6,000 people attended last year. The OC Fair people asked us to extend it to a second day.” OC Día del Niño happens concurrently with the OC Fair’s Imaginology Festival, which encourages crossover traffic.

Pointing to the dramatic results of the NEA grant, Stein thinks it wouldn’t take much more effort or money to restore Imagination Celebration to its former size. “I think the need is still there. We just have to get the word out.”

It’s difficult to imagine an event that would be more attractive to corporate benevolence than Imagination Celebration, Stein said. “It would be great if it attracted a cornerstone corporate sponsor – especially in Orange County, one of the most affluent places in the nation, in the midst of an (economic expansion).”

In the meantime, the Segerstrom Center for the Arts (as the Orange County Performing Arts Center is now called) seems ready to renew its participation in the event.

“Now that the next few months are planned and we’re starting to think about the spring, we are absolutely going to have some events that will fit” for Imagination Celebration, said Jason Holland, who is responsible for programming on the Segerstrom Center’s new Argyros Plaza. The renovation of the Segerstrom Center’s public space was completed just over a year ago, and its mandate is to offer free programs for the public.

“When you think about it, (Argyros Plaza) is sort of a reincarnation of the whole spirit of Imagination Celebration,” said Segerstrom Center vice president Judy Morr, Kendrick’s widow, who fondly remembers the excitement surrounding the first I.C. events at the Center more than three decades ago. “Families and the community gathered together to admire locally made art – that’s what our new plaza is all about.”

The Segerstrom Center’s renewed participation would be welcome, but Imagination Celebration won’t thrive again unless it’s heavily promoted, Stein said. “That takes money as well as interest. And right now, nobody is offering to step forward.”

The days of massive free media sponsorship are gone because traditional media isn’t what it used to be, Bryant pointed out. “The absence of leverage-able media entities presents a real deterrence these days. Making enough promotional noise to help any good cause is much harder now. And social media doesn’t begin to make up for it.”

Next year’s Imagination Celebration runs from April 13 through May 26. For more information about becoming a participant or attending an event, visit www.artsoc.org/imagination-celebration.htm

Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.