Henry T. Segerstrom, An Appreciation

Orange County became a world-class center of arts and culture because Henry T. Segerstrom committed time and treasure to make it so. But no matter how grand, legacies don’t maintain themselves.

I have known millionaires starving for lack of the nutriment, which alone can sustain all that is human in man, and I know workmen, and many so-called poor men, who revel in luxuries beyond the power of those millionaires to reach. It is the mind that makes the body rich.—Andrew Carnegie

It was easy enough for Andrew Carnegie to write about millionaires lacking for “nutriment.” When the steel magnate died, his estate was valued at $30 million. That was in 1919, and those were just his leftover millions. During his 83 years, Carnegie had given away more than $351 million to charities and causes dear to him—public libraries, universities, and organizations that promoted education, the arts, and world peace.

I’ve been thinking lately about philanthropic leaders past and present, and the legacies they choose, as I consider one of our own: Henry Thomas Segerstrom, Santa Ana farm boy (albeit a privileged one), World War II veteran and Purple Heart recipient, Stanford University graduate, and managing partner of C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, a family-owned commercial real estate and retail empire, the jewel of which is South Coast Plaza.

Segerstrom turned 90 in April. While only his accountant knows for sure, his Midas mountain certainly is nowhere near as monumental as Carnegie’s, which, in today’s dollars, would be worth tens of billions.

Even so, in the second half of his life, Segerstrom embarked with gusto on a high-profile role as Orange County’s cultural patron. He’s had a pivotal impact on the county’s artistic life. Thanks to his and the family’s $150 million gift—14 acres and millions in cash—the county has a central, independent arts complex that eventually will include three high-profile arts organizations: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, and the Orange County Museum of Art, which “intends and hopes” to build a facility next to the concert hall by 2017. More gifts may be ahead: Asked if the Segerstrom family had made a donation to its building campaign, museum director Dennis Szakacs says he will have a big announcement this fall. The enviable arts site will be a concentrated destination for theater, musicals, symphony, opera, dance, and visual arts thanks to and spearheaded by four decades of Segerstrom family donations.


Every age, every place, has its aspiring Carnegies. Like him, “transformational” donors are the ones whose names are affixed to the new buildings. And like him, they tend to have their own philosophies about giving away their fortunes; Carnegie actually wrote an essay about it, “The Gospel of Wealth.” They often bestow gifts based on their priorities, which is a natural inclination, but those priorities don’t always match those of the community. Schisms can develop when a philanthropist’s agenda runs counter to community concerns, and dustups occasionally spill into the public sphere.

Up the freeway, for instance, 81-year-old billionaire Eli Broad has sprinkled millions to grateful arts institutions all over Los Angeles, but he has looked increasingly petulant and entitled. He had talked about donating his vast contemporary art collection to several museums. When he gave the Los Angeles County Museum of Art $50 million to build the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, it was widely assumed it would house an anticipated gift of art from his collection. But Broad changed his mind. Instead, he retained control of his artwork and is building his own vanity museum (to open in 2014) in downtown L.A.

Meanwhile, philanthropist Glorya Kaufman bestowed $20 million on the Los Angeles Music Center to underwrite its dance series, which helped revive the series’ dimming luster. But then, this widow of Broad’s former business partner, Donald Kaufman, gave an even larger, though undisclosed, sum for a Juilliard-style dance school at USC. Kaufman didn’t care that Southern California already has myriad college dance departments. She chose to overlook other pressing needs within L.A.’s dance community, and instead approached USC with the gift of a conservatory. (Did anyone think USC was going to turn down the money?) If only the region had enough dance companies able to hire those future USC dance grads and pay them a living wage.

But Henry Segerstrom and his family had something even more special and valuable than millions of dollars at their disposal: They had land. What happened next was a fortuitious meeting of community dreamers and a patron who was willing—even eager—to create an arts complex on what once was the family farm.

In Southern California, where land is akin to gold, Segerstrom had the rare opportunity to be, in essence, an urban planner. He was able to decide the mix of resources that would surround South Coast Plaza, as he transitioned his grandfather’s company from farming into retail and commercial real estate.

Segerstrom is darn proud of being from Orange County. This is where his Swedish immigrant grandparents and his parents made their fortunes, and it’s where he was born and raised. He did leave to attend Stanford, but he always intended to return, which is one reason he didn’t go to an East Coast university. It didn’t make sense to him to form friendships and professional connections so far away, since he knew he would settle in Orange County.

That sense of loyalty to roots sounds quaint today. Yet, in all he’s done and said, Segerstrom has expressed a genuine love for this place. While some saw Orange County as a backwater, he always viewed it as a Cinderella-in-waiting. “I think Orange County is one of the most cosmopolitan and cultured areas of the world,” he told the Los Angeles Times’ Patt Morrison in a 2011 interview.

His family helped shepherd the county’s nascent artistic growth. His mother, Nellie Ruth, joined the board of directors of the Bowers Museum when it was founded in 1936. He paid attention to young cultural organizations as they took root. He attended plays at South Coast Repertory, so he knew first-hand that the productions were maturing, matching the ambitions of co-founders Martin Benson and David Emmes.

Representatives from SCR first came knocking at Segerstrom’s door in the mid-’70s, asking for land on which to build their own theater. The family agreed and SCR opened its home on Town Center Drive in 1978. This was a pivotal moment, giving the arts a foothold amid the prime real estate. It also demonstrated to the larger community that Segerstrom could be approached, that he would listen to their priorities and dreams.

He was a Johnny-come-lately in the crusade to build an Orange County Music Center, later renamed the Orange County Performing Arts Center, and then Segerstrom Center. After years of planning, a committee was formed in 1972 to find a site for a multidiscipline performing arts theater, similar to L.A.’s Music Center. But once the family’s first gifts of 5 acres and $1 million were made nine years later, Segerstrom jumped on board for the long haul. He devoted himself to the project with the fervor of a convert. He became the representative for his family, and took on the high-profile face of fundraising in the community. From 1981 to ’86, he was the chairman of the trustees, the volunteer group that spearheaded the fundraising campaign that eventually collected $73.8 million, which, in keeping with Orange County’s libertarian leanings, was all from individuals, companies, and foundations—no government money allowed. His involvement made it easier to bring other prominent donors into the fold, much as Dorothy Chandler’s leadership did for L.A.’s Music Center. (Although, I’ve heard no stories that Segerstrom ever ripped up checks that were too small, asking for larger gifts, as Chandler did.)

In 2000, he donated $40 million to the campaign to build the long-delayed, 2,000-seat concert hall across the plaza; it was the largest charitable cash gift in the county’s history at the time.

These have been his most conspicuous philanthropic gestures. Less well known is his commission to Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi to create a 1.6-acre public garden tucked behind two Anton Boulevard office towers he built—not the most obvious way for a donor to bring attention to himself. “California Scenario,” completed in 1982, is a spectacular refuge.

As Segerstrom tells the story, he flew to New York to meet Noguchi, who kept him waiting for hours. It turned out that the artist was sick and at first wanted to cancel. He finally agreed to see Segerstrom, but turned down the commission because he didn’t like the plans for a parking structure behind the garden walls. Segerstrom returned to California empty-handed, but he later sent a hand-written note to Noguchi that persuaded him to reconsider. During the two years it took to build the garden, the two became friends. Asked why he persisted, Segerstrom replied: “Why take no for an answer?”


Some donors fade into the background after the brick-and-mortar work is done, but that’s not Segerstrom’s way. He remained on the arts center’s board of directors as its most influential presence, and still is a member-at-large.

As the Noguchi story demonstrates, he is dedicated to quality. Otherwise, why hire an internationally renowned artist to create a hidden courtyard? The mantra of being No. 1 was ingrained in the family. “Some of our neighbors would let weeds grow, but on a Segerstrom-owned tract of land, there was never a weed,” he proudly told an interviewer 10 years ago. It’s the stuff of family lore, and it helps explain the attention to detail in the glistening excesses of South Coast Plaza, and in the grounds surrounding the Segerstrom Center, which are home to blue-chip artwork rather than fountains or theme park decorations. Segerstrom has overseen the placement of sculptures by masters such as Jean Dubuffet and Joan Miro.

The center’s first administrators were hired away from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington and given a mandate to launch a first-class performing arts complex. It was the excellence of the ongoing dance series that put the center on the map, thanks to engagements by England’s Royal Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, Russia’s Kirov, and the Paris Opera Ballet. For once, Los Angeles residents were driving to Orange County for arts immersion. It was sweet revenge, and validated Segerstrom’s optimism.

This nearly four-decade “relationship” between Segerstrom and the arts community has had its ups and downs. Segerstrom's legacy is complicated; the growth of the arts district has certainly benefitted South Coast Plaza, the Segerstrom family business. And like other philanthropists, he does have his own priorities and has insisted, at times, on having his way. He has commissioned sculptures for the facility without consulting anyone at the center, and he handpicked architect Cesar Pelli to design the concert hall, the tradeoff, apparently, for the hall’s $40 million cornerstone gift. Pelli also designed the 2002 expansion of South Coast Repertory. Christopher Hawthorne, architecture writer for the Los Angeles Times, likened Pelli’s concert hall design to a “high-end hotel lobby or a luxury-car showroom.” That’s just one opinion, of course, and neither the center nor SCR has complained about working with Pelli, one of the world’s most influential and decorated architects. Any disagreements have been kept out of the press. No public squabbles allowed.

In 2011, the nonprofit organization formerly known as the Orange County Performing Arts Center, as well as the 14 acres once owned by the Segerstrom family, were renamed Segerstrom Center for the Arts. When the center opened in 1986, only the main hall bore the Segerstrom name. Now, it’s everywhere, a symbol of one man’s inexorable crusade and power.


But what will happen to his legacy? The county does have other wealthy and committed arts patrons. The Argyroses ($5 million to SCR), the Dodges ($20 million to Chapman University’s college of film and media arts), the Folinos ($10 million to SCR), and the Samuelis ($10 million to the center) are a handful of the families that have made significant “naming” gifts. Henry Segerstrom’s son Anton is an Orange County Museum of Art board member, while niece Sandy Segerstrom Daniels and husband John have been active trustees for both the center and the Pacific Symphony. Those are good signs.

O.C.’s philanthropist “farmer”—as he likes to call himself—still has a presence here, but this won’t last forever. A leadership vacuum would be serious, because the challenge ahead involves getting donations for programming and operation costs. Even though those expenses are just as critical, the funding is much harder to raise.

Orange County’s fragile arts groups are moving from one phase to the next, from the optimistic pioneer years of ribbon-cuttings to the hard slog of sustaining not just quality, but their very existence. Opera Pacific already has gone out of business; so has Ballet Pacifica. The number of performances in the center’s vaunted dance series has been trimmed by one-third, a sad reality of shifting audience ticket-buying habits and a reminder that the best does not come cheaply.

Henry Segerstrom’s legacy is a model of the unwavering commitment needed to keep excellent arts thriving, and that's a model for the future. The hard work never stops. You have to plant seeds and then pull weeds forever.

 

Top color photo by Brad Swonetz

This article appeared in the August 2013 issue.