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Arts & Culture

Checking In On The California Center For The Arts In Escondido

A view from the balcony at the 1500-seat concert hall at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido.
California Center for the Arts, Escondido
A view from the balcony at the 1500-seat concert hall at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido.

Arts complex wants to be Balboa Park of North County

Checking in on the California Center for the Arts, Escondido
Checking In On The California Center For The Arts In Escondido
The California Center for the Arts in Escondido has faced some economic challenges in recent years, but it is now rebounding and about to launch its 2015-16 season.

The California Center for the Arts in Escondido has faced some economic challenges in recent years but it is now rebounding and about to launch its 2015-16 season.

The California Center for the Arts has been jumping hurdles ever since it was built two decades ago. The hope in building the Center was to change the image of the once agricultural North County city.

"I think the residents that were here that I talk to from time to time, who were part of the vision, they really saw this as a way for Escondido and North County to come of age and be something of significance," Jerry Van Leeuwen said.

Van Leeuwen was working for the city of Escondido when the Center was built and after retiring from city government he took on the job of executive director at the arts complex in June 2013. He said it's still sometimes hard to get people from outside the community to come visit the center.

"Someone came from Del Mar, and I was chatting with them at a reception, and they said, 'You know, it’s not quite as far as I thought it was and we even checked to see if there’s any hotels along the way.' So it may be not as far as you think it is and we think it’s always worth the trek," Van Leeuwen said.

Three-hundred-thousand people decided to make that trek last year and it’s taken a lot of hard work to get the center thriving. It even generated $5 million in revenue with 10 sold out shows last season.

"It had been struggling financially and my predecessor and the board really reduced the programming and closed the museum and went to a very limited performing arts season," Van Leeuwen said. "When you’ve gone through a low period and you’ve kind of had a lot of activity, it takes a little while to bring that back up so that people start to go what shall we do next week or next weekend that they have a thought of I wonder what’s going on at the center."

Now the answer is a lot’s going on. The center just announced its new season, which kicks off with the San Francisco Comedy Competition on Sept. 23 and continues with performers such as Vince Gill and Melissa Etheridge performing in the beautiful 1,500 seat concert hall.

"The design [of the concert hall] I think was to feel like an old school opera house, a very classy kind of place to be. There was a lot of attention given to the acoustics so that the performers would have a really wonderful experience," Van Leeuwen said.

There’s also a smaller 400-seat venue as well as a museum.

"And the current show that runs through Sept. 13 is 'Writing with Pictures,' and it’s about illustrators of children’s books, a really great family exhibition," Van Leeuwen said. "In the museum we have professional artists exhibitions and we also have a student wall with the local kids’ art is displayed simultaneously with people with great reputations in art and then we have a reception and everyone comes, that to me captures what we’re about."

The arts complex also includes a conference center that provides a source of revenue to help support its arts and education programs.

"The goal is to be the Balboa Park of North County," Van Leeuwen said. "We want people to come here to have their festivals and personal celebrations, their weddings; we’ve had weddings on this very stage and great events here. We had NerdCon here a couple weeks ago; the board has said we want to get a different audience on the campus and we achieved it that day."

With barely two years under his belt as executive director, Van Leeuwen gives the facility a B+.

"I think there’s always room for improvement I think the board and certainly I have interest to do a broader and more effective job in reaching out to the Hispanic community as well. We have some new programming starting Friday. Every Friday night in September in the Plaza where you’ll have bands and people can come and dance and there’ll be food."

And that epitomizes the community feel that Van Leeuwen and the Center are striving for in everything they do.