The new chairwoman of the board of Segerstrom Center for the Arts looks out from the second story of the glass-fronted, César Pelli-designed concert hall onto the verdant maze of hedges and trees below. The bushes are slightly overgrown—“it’s got a little bit of a COVID haircut right now”—but no matter. Jane Fujishige Yada loves the Arrival Gardens.
It’s only natural she feels connected to the landscape. A farmer’s daughter who grew up in Anaheim, Yada is a farmer and a businesswoman today. She’s also an arts lover who raised her son at this center and remembers how he’d play in the hedge maze years ago. As a philanthropist, she has great respect for the late Henry Segerstrom, the center’s founding chairman, who commissioned the gardens.
“He was amazing. And he started out as a farmer,” Yada says about Segerstrom. “When we were young, growing up on the farm, we weren’t necessarily exposed to the arts. But he gave us that exposure. He carried it forward.”
Now it’s her turn to carry it forward. Yada, who joined the board in 2001, takes over this month at a precarious time. The center, like other cultural institutions, was jolted by the pandemic. It faces the rigors of reopening while contending with a steep revenue decline because of the closures. Plus it has to win back wary patrons with assurances that its halls are clean and safe.
As if that weren’t enough, Yada sets the bar even higher. She wants Segerstrom Center for the Arts to take on a brand-new challenge and begin producing Broadway-caliber shows of its own, as well as continuing to present national touring shows. That way, sometime in the future, other theaters will stage shows developed in Costa Mesa and pay royalties to the center.
While she won’t take credit for originating the idea of producing shows locally, she likens the plan to creating the perfect strawberry, one that farmers will pay a fee to grow. It’s an apt metaphor for someone with her uniquely Orange County background.
Yada’s grandfather, Hisao Fujishige, a farmer, emigrated from Japan in 1906 and married Ayano Mizunaga, another Japanese immigrant, three years later. Their son, Jane’s father, Hiroshi, was born in Los Angeles in 1922.
In the early ’50s, Hiroshi and his brother, Masao, bought 58 acres of land in Anaheim and started H&M Fujishige farm. They eventually expanded to 150 more acres in Orange County and grew strawberries, vegetables, and herbs.
The original farm was down the street from Disneyland and what would become the Anaheim Convention Center. The family sold most of the farm to the Walt Disney Co. in the late ’90s while holding onto other acreage.
Today, Yada is comanager of Harbor Field Holdings in Irvine, the company that runs the family’s real estate holdings, including a housing development, a Hilton-branded hotel, office buildings, and industrial properties.
The family still has farms in Orange, Ventura, and Santa Cruz counties, and she’s involved in running them and other agricultural interests, such as California Berry Cultivars, a berry breeding company in Oxnard. Family members are also legacy cofounders of GEM-Pack Berries, a distribution company that supplies grocery chains throughout the U.S.
Yes, she’s busy, and she likes it that way. She got used to hard work growing up on the farm with her younger brother, Jack, and younger sister, Nancy.
“Dad had my siblings and I working everywhere. It was because we had to,” says Yada, who lives in Tustin Ranch. “Dad would be up at 4:45 or 5 o’clock, and he’d work until what he had to do was done. We were working hard, but we were happy. We were definitely not wealthy, but we were happy.”
Maybe the eldest daughter couldn’t drive a tractor perfectly straight, but she excelled at working at the family’s fruit and vegetable stand on Harbor Boulevard. There was no cash register, and the calculator was slow, so she’d add up sales manually using cardboard from the tomato boxes. She got good at math that way.
She attended Stoddard Elementary, Ball Junior High, and Loara High schools and was introduced to the performing arts on school outings. She made her first visit to what would become the center campus for a performance of “A Christmas Carol” at South Coast Repertory in 1980. (Not long ago, she learned she was probably at one of the first performances by Hal Landon Jr., the actor who played Scrooge in the production for 40 years.)
She was the only Asian student in any of her classes until senior year of high school. Now, as only the second woman and the first woman of color to lead the center’s board, she knows how important it is to open the door to Orange County’s increasingly diverse population.
“You know how we have that term now, ‘unconscious bias’? When I was growing up, I feel like there was more unconscious inclusion because I never felt different. Everyone was just so welcoming of each other,” she says.
“I’m kind of hoping the pendulum swings back to that, and whatever we can do in the arts to make that happen, to quilt everybody together and to heal, that would make me very happy.”
At the center in mid-May, Yada conveys an innate elegance and equal parts enthusiasm, humor, and wistfulness. Her trademark exclamation is an awestruck, “Can you imagine!” Her eyes well up when she recalls hearing the first notes the Pacific Symphony played during its post-pandemic reunion in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.
Her devotion to the symphony goes back a long way. She remembers with fondness going to hear the orchestra perform Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture when she was pregnant with her son, Grayson. He’s 19 now and a student at Chapman University.
“I had to bring a pillow to cover my belly because at the concert before, every time the volume went up, he would kick out. I was there with my pillow over my belly when the cannon would go off,” she recalls.
He was born shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “That was a very, very interesting time. I didn’t want to go without my symphony, and I would actually bring him as a newborn to the symphony. He would be swaddled in his baby blanket, and I would have a bottle ready in case he started crying. He never did, though. And we would just listen to (music director) Carl (St.Clair) and the symphony perform together. I loved that.”
That depth of feeling marks her leadership style at the center. It has been greatly appreciated during the pandemic when so much business has been conducted virtually, says Casey Reitz, the center’s president.
“We haven’t seen our board in person in over a year, and (meetings) are being conducted over Zoom,” he says. “You have a very truncated amount of time to establish camaraderie and a sense of warmth and acknowledgment. She does it extremely well. It’s just how she operates.”
Outgoing board chairman Mark C. Perry praised Yada’s “roll-up-your-sleeves enthusiasm and work ethic that inspires her colleagues,” as evidenced in her work on the reopening and facilities committees.
The center is the largest cultural institution in the county, and Yada worked with senior staff from the two biggest sports venues, Angel Stadium and Honda Center, on safety protocols in the run-up to the reopening. They became well-versed in HVAC systems, contactless ticketing systems, no-touch restroom fixtures, professional industrial hygienists, sanitation robots,
and on and on.
As she ran the numbers on all the unexpected expenses needed to upgrade the buildings, she started to think about whether royalties from a show might provide an extra revenue stream in the future. With the center closed, she used the time to look seriously at what it would take to produce shows.
She has a willing and able partner in Reitz, who arrived at the center in late 2019 with a national reputation for producing new works. As executive director at New York’s Second Stage Theater, he won a Tony Award in 2017 for producing the musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” which earned seven Tony Awards in all.
“I think presenting is what good arts centers do, and I think Orange County should be a place where the best and most talented artists from around the country and around the world come to play,” he says. “And we want that for our audiences.
“But I also think the notion of developing artists, nurturing artists is critical, and the opportunity to create new work, which is what excites so many artists, is important. I think it’s important to do it to help put Orange County and the Segerstrom Center on the map. I think that’s how we’re going to build our brand, which is a big goal of ours.”
The center is already reviewing a number of potential projects. “We’re very excited. We just have to make sure that they are responsibly done,” Yada says.
She’s adamant about that: “Every single dollar that we receive—whether its 1 dollar, 10 dollars, 10 thousand, 10 million—we are caretakers for that dollar. It’s what they have brought in because they trust us, and I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that. Not on my watch.”
She has other plans, such as introducing Orange County audiences to the cutting-edge multimedia digital art she first saw on a trip to Japan. She points out that Orange County is home to Activision Blizzard and plenty of other tech companies that might partner with the center on such a project.
“My son loves the word ‘collab.’ It’s great. I love it,” she says. “There’s definitely a lot that’s never been done before that we can do.”