One Year On, VOC’s Arts & Culture Looks Back and Ahead

One year ago, Voice of OC added a section called Arts & Culture. The idea seemed both solid and risky.

Solid, because the time is ripe. The local arts scene has never been busier.

American Ballet Theatre, the country’s most famous dance company, has established a major presence in Orange County. Our presenting organizations bring some of the best ensembles in the world here: The Royal Philharmonic, the Mariinsky Ballet, the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields. This season we’ll be treated to pianists Murray Perahia and Yefim Bronfman, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, a new choreography by Alexei Ratmansky premiered by ABT, a production of Carmina Burana … the list is as huge and as good as any major city in America.

And a swath of new arts leaders at major organizations means that O.C.’s cultural future will be dynamic and full of bold ideas.

At the community level, too, the county’s culture is thriving. In Santa Ana, Anaheim, Costa Mesa and many other places, art, theater, music and dance are becoming an ever more vital part of the local scene.

In a place sometimes derided by outsiders for its perceived homogeneity, Orange County’s many cultural identities carry extra weight. As seasoned arts reporters who had already covered O.C. for many years, we knew all about that fierce neighborhood pride, expressed so eloquently through the arts. And we knew that many in O.C.’s vast and diverse arts community felt overlooked and underappreciated.

Despite the obvious need for arts coverage, our goal carried some risks.

Journalism is changing. Newspapers are looking for fresh revenue models and experimenting with new ways to report on and interact with the world. The arts, as many of you have probably noticed, are not covered the way they used to be.

Not too many years ago, the Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register and O.C. Weekly employed large numbers of full-time veteran reporters and critics to write about culture in Orange County. The Register and the Times competed, sometimes intensely, to beat each other on breaking arts news stories.

But traditional journalism is faced with different priorities and leaner resources now; comprehensive reporting on local culture no longer makes economic sense. Many major productions and events in Orange County get little or no coverage from the traditional sources. You might not agree with that decision, but it’s understandable given the changes that have transformed journalism in recent years. 

At Voice of OC, we decided to report on local arts and culture the same way we do with any worthwhile topic. Our news website’s strength lies in covering vital yet largely neglected local stories with a level of detail and knowledge that traditional news media can no longer match. We also wanted to examine the major events that happen here, but with an eye towards value, influencers and the bigger picture – the story behind the story, if you will. 

Above all, we wanted to avoid the obvious. That traditional mainstay, the preview-review format, isn’t the best or only way to cover the arts.

Looking back on the last year, I’m happy to say that we achieved many of our initial goals. Along with showcasing the writing some of Orange County’s most seasoned and talented arts journalists (most of them former employees of the Register and the L.A. Times), we broke some major stories, sometimes miles ahead of the competition: the sudden and unexpected departure of Terry Dwyer, the longtime president of O.C.’s flagship cultural institution, the Segerstrom Center for the Arts; Shakespeare Orange County’s fractious divorce from the city of Garden Grove and the new deal it struck with a local college; hot-button debates about public art in Santa Ana.

And our articles have been popular. Some of the most widely read stories on the VOC site in the last year were pieces steeped in the cultural fabric of our communities. My look at the subsidized artists’ housing complex in Santa Ana was the subject of intense interest and debate. Other viral articles included Peter Lefevre’s well-researched piece about Christ Cathedral’s transformation into a performance venue; Richard Chang’s deep dive into the burgeoning arts scene in Costa Mesa; and Asjia Garner’s investigation into the meaning behind the names of pho restaurants in Little Saigon.

Our efforts were appreciated and rewarded by our peers. At this year’s Orange County Press Club Awards, I won First Place for Best Music/Entertainment Review for my mixed assessment of South Coast Repertory’s 2018-19 season opener. VOC classical music writers Timothy Mangan and Peter Lefevre rounded out the rest of that category, giving Voice of OC a clean sweep. And Richard Chang’s story about artist Ann Phong was among the winners in the Best Arts & Culture Story category.

Most important of all, we were rewarded by you, our readers – not only because of your continuing interest in our content, but because of your generosity in supporting Voice of OC’s arts and culture coverage. Thanks to your donations and the careful stewardship of VOC founder Norberto Santana Jr., we found financial support from the get-go, allowing us to bring you quality writing and criticism every week.

Looking ahead, we intend to keep giving you quality writing about the events you care about. To do that we hope you will continue to support us – with story ideas and donations.  In return, we don’t plan on going away. We look forward to continuing to learn about the arts and cultural events that make your neighborhoods special.

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