There’s a vast, mostly-open space in the middle of Orange County, and that space used to be the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. MCAS El Toro was built in 1942 and operational between 1943 and 1999.
It’s now called the Orange County Great Park, or just the Great Park, and while visions of Balboa Park in San Diego or even Central Park in New York City were dancing in city and park planners’ heads more than 15 years ago, many of those dreams haven’t quite been fulfilled in the reality of the Great Park today.
Today there’s still a lot of open space. Flat, quiet surroundings. Home and condo developments are creeping in on the edges. Plenty of stuff happens regularly at the Great Park — youth soccer games, a farmer’s market, movie nights, the brightly lit carousel, the big orange balloon that lifts visiting (and waiting) families for free.
There’s even a live concert venue on the edge of the Great Park — FivePoint Amphitheatre — that has attracted some impressive acts like Morrissey, Beck, Elvis Costello, Hootie & the Blowfish and Smashing Pumpkins. But that’s a temporary concert venue, meant to replace the old Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre (R.I.P.), and reviews of the 10,000-seat amphitheater on reliable websites have been mixed.
Many of the original cultural aspirations for the Great Park — like a museum or two, beautiful, artistic landscaping, nature walks, swimming pools and free, publicly shared event space — haven’t quite materialized.
An Exception Among Unrealized Dreams
The exception to this would be the Palm Court Arts Complex, which turns 9 years old this year.
The Palm Court Arts Complex has consistently programmed interesting, thought-provoking exhibitions and events since its beginnings in July 2011, and it’s not slowing down in 2020.
The complex consists of three buildings: the Great Park Gallery, the Great Park Artist Studios and Hangar 244, a 10,000-square-foot exhibit and event center. They are all left-over, repurposed military structures from MCAS El Toro.
There’s also Palm Court in the center, which can be used for outdoor performances. The court is dominated by 54 genuine Canary Islands date palms, which have gotten the obligatory holiday lights strewn on them during the recent holiday season. The outlines of an original “Ghost Building” (or series of four buildings) can also been seen in marine-blue glass on the floor of the court.
Kevin Staniec has been there since the beginning of the complex. He oversees the day-to-day operations of the Palm Court Arts Complex, so he could be called “director.” But his official title is the somewhat bureaucratic: supervisor of arts, aquatics and human services. (Last time we checked, there were no aquatics at the Great Park, a landlocked, former landing field for aircraft.)
Staniec’s timing couldn’t better — his first day of work was the same as the grand opening of the Arts Complex.
“There’s not many venues in Orange County where you can connect with history,” said Staniec, a resident of Orange and former employee of the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, another multipurpose venue. He also founded the nonprofit 1888 Center in Orange.
“You can connect with the narrative of El Toro, the Irvine Ranch,” he said. “You can see emerging and established artists, visual, literary and performing arts, and I think accessibility is the biggest goal for all the programs we do.”
Accessibility may be a problem for the Palm Court Arts Complex, as it is in the middle of the still vast and vague Great Park. You may find yourself driving around in your car for a few minutes wondering: Where is this place?
The popular directions app Waze doesn’t really take you to the exact location, and signage around the Great Park is sparse and may not lead you directly to the closest parking lot.
According to Melissa Haley, public information officer for the city of Irvine, more than 50,000 visitors toured exhibitions in the Great Park Gallery in 2019.
That’s a respectable number, but doesn’t compare to the hundreds of thousands who visit the Bowers Museum or Laguna Art Museum each year.
Annual expenditures are $470,000, Haley said. The complex does not collect revenue, as its programs are free.
As a component of the Orange County Great Park, the Arts Complex is operated by the city of Irvine, in the same division as the Irvine Fine Arts Center. Seven people work full-time at the Arts Complex, including Staniec and Adam Sabolick, community services senior leader and a talented emerging curator.
Three Main Buildings
Hangar 244 holds one or both of the Great Park’s two vintage planes. It also showcases several permanent exhibitions, including “Stories of El Toro”; “Opening Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro,” featuring the photographs of Bob Blankman, a history archivist and member of the first unit stationed at El Toro; and “Closing Marine Corps Air Station El Toro” and “Coordinates” by the Legacy Project. Hangar 244 also screens the 9-minute “A Guide to Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro” video.
The Great Park Gallery hosts rotating exhibitions, about three or four per year. Previous exhibitions have included a collection of drawings of the “Nixon Years” by Deborah Aschheim; “Farmers To Flyers,” a collection of historical photographs, documents and artifacts capturing the air station’s impact on Southern California; “Hero,” a group show of manga and anime-inspired works; and “Eureka,” a survey of graphic design movements from the Gold Rush to the present.
The gallery does not have a permanent collection.
The Artist Studios serves as a venue for group shows, artists’ residencies and some special events, such as “Holidayz at the Park” and the Halloween-themed “Spooktacular.” One Conceptual group show in 2012 focused on the theme of “1942,” the year the base was built, and upcoming shows will feature art students from Irvine Valley College from March through June, and Cal State Long Beach from June through August.
Staniec, who has organized and curated dozens of exhibitions over the years, maintains an optimism about the complex and the two art buildings, which once served as gallery and preservation spaces for artifacts from the Marine Corps Air Station. Those artifacts have since been relocated to San Diego.
“It’s always exciting when you hear cleats walking around the gallery, because you know that there are players coming off the soccer field and coming and looking at the art,” he said. “There are people coming in from other counties, and even sometimes other states. Of course, during the summertime there’s a lot of tourism. We get people stepping into these exhibits and these programs that may have never stepped into a gallery or museum before.”
‘Break Down, Build Up’
The current exhibition at the Great Park Gallery is titled “Break Down, Build Up” and runs through Feb. 9. It features the large-scale paintings of Daniel Dove and Marie Thibeault, both Los Angeles-based artists. Thibeault is from San Pedro, while Dove is an associate professor of drawing and painting at Cal State Long Beach, where Thibeault has also taught.
“Break Down” is supposed to refer to Thibeault’s approach, and “Build Up” is meant to refer to Dove, though one can see each process in each of the artist’s work.
Both Dove and Thibeault explore images from the landscape, as well as concepts of modernity, consumption, industrialization, waste and their effects on the natural environment. Though they come from different generations, they both treat their subject matter with abstract and collage-like approaches, with generous, yet specific, use of color.
Adam Sabolick curated this show, after working on a recent Palm Court group exhibition of MFA candidates from universities across California. He has proven to be a very capable curator of art exhibits, as well as a well-spoken presenter on behalf of the work. He will spend many minutes with visitors explaining certain works and series of images to them.
About the current two-person show, “There’s these very dense art history references, but then they’re painted so well,” Sabolick said. “Their craftsmanship makes it more accessible for people who might not be as informed in art history.”
On Sunday, Jan. 26, nationally recognized art critic Peter Frank will lead a discussion about the exhibition, with artists Dove and Thibeault attending as well. Frank, an L.A.-based critic, curator, writer and educator, recently curated “Tony DeLap: A Retrospective” at Laguna Art Museum from February-May 2018. (DeLap passed away in May of last year.) The free discussion will be from 1-3 p.m.
Coming up at the Great Park Art Gallery will be “MCAS El Toro, 2003,” a group photo exhibition from March 1 through May 17. And “Ink on Paper: A Letterpress Showcase” will run June 7-Aug. 16. This group exhibition will reportedly be the first large-scale show in Orange County to feature work from national and international letterpress printers and artists. The show also aims to give visitors an insight into the history of the letterpress through films, artifacts and publications.
Rachelle Chuang, a senior lecturer in graphic design at Chapman University who has also taught at several other local universities and colleges, is assisting with the curation.
So even though the Palm Court Arts Complex can be a perplexing drive to access, and the destiny of the Great Park remains uncertain, the future looks bright for the city-run, hidden gem of an arts center.
The complex has organized consistent programming for nine straight years, has an ambitious schedule this year, and is looking forward to its 10th anniversary next year. Some special events recognizing the anniversary have already been discussed.
“I think that this is a great blank canvas that we get to be creative, we get to be cultural, we get to be historical, and provide these opportunities for people to access these components,” Staniec said. “It’s definitely a gem, and that’s the reason I’m still passionate about it.”
Richard Chang is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC, focusing on the visual arts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.