Pacific Symphony has elected Arthur Ong as its new chairman of the board, effective Jan. 1, 2023. Ong, who previously served as executive vice chair of the board, will serve a two-year term and succeeds John R. Evans, who stepped down after holding the chairman post since 2020. Evans will continue to serve on the board as immediate past chair.
Ong is the first person of color to serve as chairman of the board at Pacific Symphony since its founding in 1978.
“I’m very honored to be taking the position,” Ong said in an interview. “When you hear music performed so well that it brings tears to your eyes, it’s really special. Those are the kinds of performances that this amazing orchestra is capable of. It’s really, really a fantastic orchestra.”
About becoming the first person of color to serve as chairman of Pacific Symphony’s board, Ong said, “I certainly think of it as an indication of continuing change in Orange County, and hopefully an indication of the growth of Orange County, and the integration of the community here in a very positive direction, hopefully. So I think of it as an indicator of positive change.”
Over the past 30 or so years, Pacific Symphony has become one of the fastest-growing symphony orchestras in the United States. For the 2022-23 fiscal year that ends June 30, the symphony has projected expenses of $23.6 million. As of Dec. 1, its endowment stood at $27.8 million, according to Pacific Symphony President and CEO John Forsyte.
A Newport Beach resident, Ong, 68, most recently served as executive vice president and deputy general counsel at Pacific Investment Management Company (PIMCO). He retired a couple of years ago, he said.
Ong holds over three decades of legal experience, working with PIMCO, Barclays Global Investors, Morgan Stanley, and Davis, Polk & Wardwell. He also clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York City. He holds a J.D. from Fordham University School of Law and an undergraduate degree from Cornell University. He passed the bar in New York and Washington, D.C.
“Arthur Ong brings more than three decades of legal and business experience and extensive board service, combined with boundless passion for classical music to his new position as chair of the symphony board,” Forsyte said in a statement. “He balances great leadership wisdom with a commitment to serving the community.”
Ong also served on the board of directors of the PIMCO Foundation, the charitable arm of the investment firm. He is currently a member, and was past chairman, of The Wooden Floor based in Santa Ana, one of the symphony’s Heartstrings partners. He also serves on the UC Irvine Law School Board of Visitors.
The new chairman takes the helm at a critical time for Pacific Symphony. In September, the symphony announced that music director and conductor Carl St.Clair will leave his longtime post, probably at the end of the 2023-24 season. So the symphony is in the process of searching for a successor to St.Clair, who has served as music director since 1990.
“This is an exciting, challenging and pivotal moment for the symphony as the organization seeks to expand its role in the community and begins to look for a successor to our beloved music director,” Ong said. “The guest conductors we have coming in, we’ll be looking at them as a future music director. Whichever music directors we are interested in – we (board members), the orchestra members, would love to see them conduct the orchestra, and see what they have to offer.”
Arts organizations such as symphonies are under increasing pressure and scrutiny to recruit and hire leaders who reflect the gender and ethnic diversity of their communities. Another older white male to conduct the symphony may not be the best look for an organization that’s aiming to reach all sectors of the community.
“Yeah, I think we’re definitely looking for the sort of opportunities to continue to diversify our leadership, our membership,” Ong said. “We’re definitely going to keep an eye out for talent – both mainstream and under-represented groups. It’s something we will definitely focus on.”
Ong said Pacific Symphony has not interviewed candidates for the music director position yet. “It’s too early at this point,” he said. “It has begun, but we’re only in the very early stages. So I think the first step is coming up with a framework, where we all kind of agree what are the most important qualities, qualifications in our next music director, to replace our beloved Carl St.Clair.
“It will be a collaborative effort, involving members of the board, members of the community and the orchestra. We want to make sure everyone’s on the same page.”
Ong’s promotion to chairman of the board of Pacific Symphony represents an interesting trend that has been occurring recently at Orange County’s most high-profile arts organizations. More Asian Americans have assumed positions of leadership in the past year or two.
The Segerstrom Center for the Arts elected Jane Fujshige Yada as its chair of the board in October 2020. She took on the position in July 2021, becoming only the second woman to chair the Center’s board of directors, and the first woman of color.
In fall 2022, Lucy Sun was selected incoming president of the board of trustees at the Orange County Museum of Art, just as it was opening its new, $94.5 million structure at Segerstrom Center of the Arts. Many in the local arts community were surprised to see her speaking at opening events on behalf of the board of trustees, rather than Craig Wells, who had held that position since 2010. Sun officially became president of the board on Jan. 1.
“Certainly it seems to be pretty remarkable that the cultural leadership in Orange County now counts among its leaders many Asian Americans,” Ong said. “That is definitely a challenge for Orange County arts organizations to continue to reach out, and to really get more community involvement.”
Diversity in nonprofit leadership matters, because leaders of color can increase an organization’s effectiveness and social relevance by introducing fresh perspectives and lived experience that enrich programming, broaden the organization’s reach, and engage in new networks that reflect and inform its mission, according to Faith Mitchell, chief executive officer of Grantmakers In Health, a national philanthropy-serving organization based in Washington, D.C.
Ong said he believes he was elected because he’s part of new efforts to reach out.
“I’m interested in upping our engagement with the community,” he said. The other board members “probably see me as someone with experience in that. I want to continue to grow symphony’s engagement with the community, as well as to help expand its appeal and involvement with under-represented groups. I want to bring in more minorities. I want to reach out more to the African American and Latino communities.”
Ong said he played the clarinet for many years in his youth, and is returning to the instrument now. He loves classical music and enjoys attending Pacific Symphony concerts with his wife Ginger Sun.
“I do think having an orchestra as talented as the Pacific Symphony is really a treasure for Orange County people,” he said. “I definitely think that the mission of the symphony is really to inspire and engage the community through the gift of music.”
Positions on the board of directors for the symphony are voluntary and unpaid, as is the case with most nonprofit arts organizations.
Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Classical music coverage at Voice of OC is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Voice of OC makes all editorial decisions.