Orange County Arts Awards

WHERE: Samueli Theater, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

WHEN: Oct. 16. 5 p.m. dinner reception, 7:30 p.m. awards ceremony.

TICKETS: $40-$150; $1,500 for VIP tickets

INFO: 714-556-5160 or

Every edition of the Orange County Arts Awards is special in some way.

This year is no exception. On Oct. 16, Arts Orange County, the county’s non-profit arts agency, hosts the 20th anniversary of the celebration which honors the county’s arts community, recognizing its stars and celebrating their lives, personalities and achievements.

The evening starts with a VIP reception followed by dinner and dessert, followed by the ceremony, with special guest entertainers’ performances interspersed between the award presentations, and as a capper to the night, an after-party – an event added just a few years ago that has proven quite popular.

The evening will be co-hosted by Richard Stein, president and CEO of Arts Orange County, and Renee Bodie, the new general manager of the Soka Performing Arts Center.

“For 20 years,” Stein said, “Arts Orange County has honored the people and organizations that have profoundly impacted the creative life of our community. Each year, we look forward to recognizing those in the arts who have contributed to Orange County over the course of a lifetime and those who have more recently made an impact.”

“This is an evening that celebrates our diverse artistic community – one where we honor and thank those whose dedication to the arts enriches and benefits so many throughout Orange County.”

Each year’s slate of awards, Stein said, typically recognize an arts patron or patrons, an artist, an arts leader and an arts organization. Remaining awards, he said, may vary from outstanding contribution to the built environment, which Stein said “usually means the opening of a major new arts facility, an architectural masterpiece, or a major public art installation,” to calling attention to emerging artists and leaders of the O.C. arts community.

Stein notes that the inaugural event, which was shepherded by Arts Orange County’s founding executive director, Bonnie Brittain Hall, was a very long evening honoring many people. The reason behind this is easily apparent: “there had never been any arts awards event like this.”

Subsequent ceremonies have pared down the number of award recipients. “We now typically present about six awards,” said Stein, making for an evening with more breathing room.

This Year’s Super Six

The 2019 honorees range from art patrons/philanthropists Ernesto and Socorro Vasquez, to the Grand Central Arts Center, itself celebrating a 20-year anniversary, to Carl St.Clair, enjoying his 30th anniversary as music director of Pacific Symphony. Rounding out the list is landscape architect, sculptor and cultural advocate James Dinh; Cherie Kerr, improv artist with the L.A. Groundlings and founder of the Orange County Crazies; and visionary arts leader Jerry Mandel, president of Irvine Barclay Theatre and the former president of the Orange County Performing Arts Center (now Segerstrom Center for the Arts).

The Vasquezes, Mandel and Kerr have an added distinction: They’re this year’s Helena Modjeska Cultural Legacy Award Honorees for Lifetime Achievement.

Cherie Kerr

“Cherie is not a household name among the arts community, and yet she has had a rather remarkable career as an arts entrepreneur and leader,” Stein said. She not only founded and ran the Orange County Crazies improv troupe, but “helped and was on the committee that helped get the Arts Orange County off the ground.” This award, he said, “is an opportunity to not only honor someone who has left a legacy in the area of improv, but also who most people perhaps haven’t heard of but should know about.”

Jerry Mandel

Mandel “has been an indefatigable presence in the arts scene – first with Segerstrom and now the Barclay,” said Stein. “He’s a larger-than-life personality with a joie de vivre and an enthusiastic passion for the arts – particularly his own art form, jazz, and its infectious nature. He’s been an important presence as an arts leader in Orange County.”

Carl St.Clair

This isn’t the first time that St.Clair has been honored. “(He) has led our orchestra for 30 years now, which is a most unusual thing for a musical director to remain with an orchestra for that long. He has been honored by us in the past – but in recognition of his 30th anniversary, we wanted to pay homage to him.”

Stein said he got to know Dinh, who is being honored as “Outstanding Artist/Arts Leader,” when both were doing consulting work with the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association (VAALA). “He’s a former board member of theirs, an artist and arts leader who they hold in the highest esteem. He has not only created marvelous work in Little Saigon, having been selected to create the iconic sculpture ‘Of Two Lineages,’ but has created a number of important works of art throughout O.C.”

James Dinh

Also crucial is that Dinh has been instrumental in building an arts community behind the scenes, primarily through VAALA. “He’s an individual not known to that many people, and they should really know about him,” said Stein.

The Vasquezes have showered numerous organizations with material support as well as valued patronage and ongoing encouragement. The list is an impressively hefty one that includes the Claire Trevor School of the Arts at UCI, Orange County Museum of Art, Smithsonian Latino Center, South Coast Repertory, The Wooden Floor, Arts Orange County, Orange County Community Foundation and the Orange County Hispanic Education Endowment Fund.

Ernesto and Socorro Vasquez

Stein calls the couple “really wonderful, generous people to be honored. They’re really visionary arts patrons and philanthropists within the community – not just the arts, but education and Latino causes.”

Their signature achievements include the Hispanic Playwrights Project at SCR and nurturing The Wooden Floor during the early days of its formation.

“They helped it to realize its full potential as a program that employs dance to help the underserved,” Stein noted. That early success helped to validate the entire mission of the organization.

Grand Central Art Center

Grand Central Art Center (GCAC) is receiving the achievement award for an outstanding arts organization. A contemporary art incubator and a hub for social and cultural exchange, the center was a collaboration, in 1999, between Cal State Fullerton and the city of Santa Ana – specifically, between art professor Mike McGee at Cal State Fullerton and community visionary Don Cribb” of Santa Ana.

Stein credits John Spiak, GCAC’s curator since 2011, and his work and efforts, for making the center a resource for local as well as national artists – and therefore prompting Arts Orange County to bestow this year’s award. Under his direction, the center serves as an example of “what an arts center of the 21st century can and should be, looking outward as well as to its own community, and I really do attribute much of that to John Spiak.”

Two Decades’ Worth of Remarkable Arts Achievers

Looking back over the past 20 years prompts Stein to laud its numerous recipients: “The honorees are always so remarkable.” They are chosen specifically to communicate that arts and culture encompasses a broad spectrum of people and organizations.

And while the vast majority are well-known in the Orange County arts community, Stein says the awards also aim to “honor some unsung heroes, groundbreakers, innovators, and people who represent creativity outside of the traditional arts.”

Honorees and performers alike, Stein said, “all must have some O.C. connection – be born and raised here, lived a portion of their lives here, went to school here, made they career here for a time, live here now – anyone we’d like to claim as one of our own!”

A sampling of past recipients includes Marie Gray, the fashion designer who founded St. John; Don Ed Hardy, a tattoo artist who parlayed his designs into the global Ed Hardy fashion brand; the three founders of Blizzard Entertainment, originator of the wildly popular World of Warcraft computer game; James Luna, the late Native American performance artist; Cathy Rigby, who leapt from her gymnastics career to the Broadway stage, produces at La Mirada Theatre and operates an arts conservatory in Yorba Linda; Brian Peterson, a young automotive designer for KIA who started painting portraits of homeless people in his Santa Ana neighborhood to help raise money for them; and the late Dick Dale, “King of Surf Guitar.”

Of Benefit to Everyone Throughout Orange County

As you’d expect, proceeds from the Orange County Arts Awards help fund Arts OC’s work in arts and arts education advocacy including the Imagination Celebration,, Día del Niño, the Creative Edge Lecture and VOICES: Veterans Storytelling Project, and the provision of free and affordable consultancy services to local arts organizations.

Stein said he initiated moving the event in 2009 from the Balboa Bay Club, where it had been held for many years, to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

“I felt it was important to have the event at an arts venue, and the Samueli Theater is a wonderful space for an event of this type,” he said. “It enabled us, too, to retain a ‘gala’ feel to it by having a VIP sponsors dinner preceding the ceremonies.”

For those “starving artists” and/or others for whom the cost of a ticket might be beyond their means yet who wish to attend to cheer on their friends, family and mentors being honored, Stein said the event has installed what he calls “a low-priced gallery ticket” of $40 that covers attendance to the awards ceremony.

As for the evening’s entertainment, Stein said he and his colleagues “try to keep the program fresh by presenting all different kinds of artists on stage performing between the award presentations.”

Headlining the evening’s entertainment are singer-songwriter Nancy Sanchez, Pacific Symphony’s concertmaster, Dennis Kim, and jazz saxophone player Edmund Velasco, who will perform during the awards and also at the after-party with his Edmund Velasco Trio.

This year’s inclusion of Sanchez, a three-time Orange County Music Award winner, is, Stein said, “a fitting tribute to the Vasquezes”; as apt is that she’ll perform a song from her new album, the first of her collections to contain songs entirely in Spanish.

Just as Sanchez’s presence points at the Vasquezes, Pacific Symphony’s concertmaster, Dennis Kim, will deliver a violin performance in tribute to St.Clair and jazz sax player Edmund Velasco will salute Mandel. A lifelong jazz fan, Mandel is also a jazz musician in his own right known to perform at various Orange County nightspots such as Bayside in Newport Beach – and has been seen and heard performing at notable New York City jazz venues.

What does the future hold for this now-celebrated annual event? Stein said the program is “always seeking to uncover those ‘unsung heroes’ and those creative people who are known to only a few while making a major impact. I don’t see us changing that mission in the future. I’m not sure what we might change in the future, but you never know!”

Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at

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