The recent announcement of S. Paul Musco’s passing is a reminder that a crucial generation of local arts philanthropists is fading from the scene.

Those who transformed the arts in Orange County through their long-term generosity, vision and ambition have left an indelible mark. Among the most prominent are George Argyros, now 84; Henry Segerstrom, who died in 2015 at 91; and Musco, 95, who died on Sept. 18.

Musco’s contributions reflected a deep love and curiosity for arts and culture. Born in Providence, Rhode Island, to Sicilian immigrants, he made his fortune in precious metals. He was a significant donor to Opera Pacific and Pacific Symphony, among other performing arts organizations.

But Musco is most strongly associated with Chapman University, where he spread his support among many interests: the Escalette Permanent Art Collection, Argyros Global Citizens Plaza, Dodge College of Film & Media Arts, Leatherby Libraries, Wilkinson College, Argyros School of Business and Economics, Economic Science Institute, Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education and Fish Interfaith Center.

Musco’s most prominent gift to Chapman is undoubtedly the $78 million, 1,044-seat Marybelle and Sebastian P. Musco Center for the Arts. The 88,142-square-foot performing arts facility, which opened in March 2016, was designed by Pfeiffer Partners, with acoustics by Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics. The Muscos donated $39 million toward the construction of the center, which is widely considered to be one of the best-designed campus concert halls in the nation to open in the last 20 years.

The Musco Center for the Arts on the Chapman University campus. Credit: Photo courtesy of Chapman University

“We miss him terribly, but what an amazing legacy he leaves – and I always thought, whenever I saw him and Marybelle enjoying a performance at Musco Center, how wonderful it was that he got to see that center rise and open and flourish, and that he saw and met so many of our students who benefited from it. He made the dream happen! ” said Mary Platt, director of the Hilbert Museum on the Chapman campus. She was the director of communications during the time when the Musco Center was constructed.

Musco’s involvement with the Los Angeles Opera, where he served as a board member, resulted in an extraordinary relationship between that institution and the Musco Center. The annual concert presentation of an L.A. Opera production was always a highlight of the Musco season. The Muscos’ generosity toward the opera company included their underwriting support for “Carmen” (2004), “Rigoletto” (2010 and 2018) and “Thais” (2014).

According to an appreciation for Musco on the L.A. Opera website, Musco grew up listening to opera. “When he and his brothers gathered around the radio to hear Tommy Dorsey, his mother insisted that they listen to ‘real music’ and would change the station to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. He used to say, ‘I guess it was osmosis, because I came to love opera and it has stayed with me personally ever since.’”  

One of L.A. Opera’s final performances before the pandemic was a concert performance of Roberto Devereux starring Plácido Domingo at the Musco Center. Musco, a close friend of Domingo’s, underwrote that and other concert performances at the Musco Center featuring Domingo, including “Nabucco” (2017) and “Don Carlo” (2018).

“He had an enduring vision,” said Richard T. Bryant, executive director of the Musco Center, who knew Musco well. “Paul and (his wife) Marybelle were always completely dedicated to this place. I’ve never seen anything like him and them in the many years that I’ve been doing this kind of work: a philanthropist with such deep commitment and such specific love and attention to detail and participation in this project.”

“Nothing for me captures the essence of Paul better than remembering him enjoying his time with the students, cracking jokes, telling stories, giving them sound advice, and listening to them,” said Giulio Ongaro, dean of Chapman’s College of Performing Arts. “You couldn’t help enjoying being with him and listening to what he had to say, also knowing he listened to you and was genuinely interested in you as an individual.”

Bryant said it was too early to talk about how Musco’s legacy would be acknowledged, or any future plans that involve the Musco family’s support. “We have some ideas, and they will be revealed at the appropriate time,” he said.

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

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