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A Leap of Faith. A Vital Necessity. A Labor of Love.

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

From left: JoeJoe McKinney in “Rent” performed at the Chance Theater in Anaheim; Shanghai Dumplings at Nếp Café in Irvine; Festival Ballet Theatre's production of “Sleeping Beauty;” Relámpago del Cielo's “Celebracion del dia de los muertos” in 2021; cellist Jonah Kim performing at the Irvine Barclay Theatre; "Untitled" by Sofia Enriquez in the sculpture garden at The Muckenthaler Cultural Center. Photos courtesy of Chance Theater/Doug Catiller, Anne Marie Panoringan, Festival Ballet Theatre, Relámpago del Cielo, Irvine Barclay Theater/Steven Georges, The Muckenthaler Cultural Center

Welcome to Culture OC.

After providing award-winning arts and culture articles for Voice of OC since 2018, we’ve decided to create our own nonprofit news website.

This is a labor of love for us. It’s also a huge leap of faith.

Some people might think that a website solely focused on cultural journalism is an act of utter folly — an “elitist” niche product in a world that worships stratospheric reader metrics, endless tsunamis of “likes,” and the crass bullhorn of mega-influencers.

On the contrary, we think what we’ve created is a vital necessity whose time is long overdue.

Orange County is rich in culture. It’s a fundamental element of our communal identity. Yet our cultural life is woefully neglected by traditional journalism. As for-profit newspapers and magazines struggle to find new revenue streams in an age of digitization, the once-plentiful flow of arts and culture stories has run dry. Like many forms of local journalism that serve an audience with special interests, cultural coverage has been jettisoned by newspapers everywhere.

Our goal is to restore arts and culture journalism in Orange County to its former vigor. We aim to cover the county’s vast and varied banquet as thoroughly as we can — theater, dance, music, visual arts, literature, food and drink, and local culture of all kinds. We plan to provide even more breaking news coverage, in-depth features, profiles, previews and reviews, and we’ll continue to include underserved communities and street-level culture.

As our readers already know, our writers include many respected and award-winning journalists who have written about arts and culture in O.C. for decades: Joel Beers, Richard Chang, Lawrence Christon, Paul Hodgins, Peter Lefevre, Timothy Mangan, Eric Marchese, Anne Marie Panoringan, Jessica Peralta, Anne Valdespino, Kaitlin Wright. And we’ve been working to develop the next generation of arts and culture writers who have already been winning awards in their own right: Jessica Choi, Kristina Garcia and Kim Pham. We’ve won more than 30 honors in five years, including a National Arts Journalism Award.

Erasing the needless line between ‘high’ and ‘low’

Why is arts and culture journalism important?

For starters, it’s a necessary part of a healthy, creative community ecosystem. Arts organizations reflect the interests and issues of the constituencies that support them. They depend on journalists to help get the word out about their work and to receive thoughtful, constructive feedback.

Cultural journalists recognize the value of that ecosystem and help it thrive. We expose artists and arts organizations to new audiences, amplify upcoming events, provide informed critical analysis and insight for arts consumers and encourage lively debate. We hold arts leadership accountable in an era when organizations need to carefully consider how they want to reflect and respond to their diverse communities, and we produce a permanent record of the work created within our community.

So there are many reasons why local culture should be acknowledged, analyzed, debated and celebrated. But before we go on, let’s unpack a cumbersome piece of baggage: the word “culture.”

Beginning with the birth of Hollywood and the rise of popular music in the early 20th century, a schism has widened between “high” and “low” culture, particularly here in the U.S. “We’ve come to accept intellectual stimulation and pop culture fetishism as diametric opposites, frequently pulling us, our attention, and our personal growth in conflicting directions,” writes cultural commentator Maria Popova on her blog, The Marginalia. “But, it turns out, this might be a tragic oversimplification at best, if not a complete fallacy.”

We agree with Popova — this “high/low” distinction is not only false, but damaging. We’ve learned that culture is everywhere if you care to look for it, and it’s often hidden in unexpected places. When you embrace a more holistic interpretation of culture, your discoveries tell fascinating stories that reveal the singular and sometimes contradictory soul of a place.

In our own work as arts journalists in Orange County, we’ve covered a rich universe of people and passions that are crucial threads of the cultural tapestry: a refurbisher of Packard luxury cars in Santa Ana whose meticulous restorations blur the line between craft and artistry; quinceañera dress makers whose work could take your breath away; anonymous sand artists whose haunting, ephemeral patterns stamped into the beach last only as long as the next high tide.

We’ve also written about the intersection of culture, politics and money. That messy confluence produces many stories that touch on bigger issues.

Architect Richard Neutra, a modernist pioneer, was a significant influence in Orange County, but many of his buildings have fallen victim to neglect, the sad result of voracious developers and an indifferent public.

Subsidized artists’ housing in Santa Ana has caused some friction with the surrounding community.

Costa Mesa has been known as “City of the Arts” since 1984, but the look, feel and genre of those arts have evolved over time. The visual and independent arts sometimes compete for attention in a community that also includes the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, South Coast Repertory, South Coast Plaza and a plethora of surf and skate companies.

Censorship is a perennial hot topic that touches all the arts. In both visual and performing arts, the First Amendment is constantly butting heads with countervailing forces from both political directions.

O.C.’s culture reflects civic pride and a hint of rivalry

Perhaps the most important role of culture in Orange County is its deep connection to community identity and civic pride. Our culture reflects our size, influence, diversity and uniqueness. It brands us as us.

We’re a large, cosmopolitan place. Our 3.151 million residents make us the sixth-largest county in the U.S. by population.

More than one-third of us are Latino; more than 20 percent are Asian. We’re better off than most other places, too. O.C.’s average annual household income in 2022 was $142,036, the seventh-highest among all counties statewide. And we’re well educated. In 2021, more than 42 percent of O.C.’s adult population had attained a bachelor’s degree or higher — significantly more than the California average of 35 percent.

Yet, underlying the pride that comes with size and influence is a hint of rivalry with that even larger county to the north. There’s often a sense among O.C. residents that L.A. doesn’t take us as seriously as it should, and a conviction that we offer things that it doesn’t. Assumptions are made. Clichés harden. Rivalry ensues.

It’s no surprise, then, that the idea of a world-class performing arts center for Orange County took hold shortly after the L.A. Music Center opened in 1964. Or that some of the county’s most affluent families — Segerstrom, Argyros, Folino, Samueli and so on — have given generously, even lavishly, to the arts in Orange County.

Marvel at the richness of this random list: a Tony-winning regional theater where some of America’s best plays were born. A Grammy-winning choir. Dominance in surf/skateboard culture. A multi-season “Top Chef” star. A major dance festival founded by a Joffrey Ballet prima ballerina. The largest Vietnamese film festival in the country. A Michelin-starred Mexican restaurant. One of the most successful video game developers in the industry. A novelist whose books have sold more than 450 million copies. The world’s most famous theme park. A UC Irvine professor who is considered a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

That, perhaps, is the most important reason to pay attention to Orange County’s cultural life. We’re well aware of our importance and influence. They’re impressive by any standard. And our culture, in all its messy diversity, is an intrinsic part of our identity. It demands our attention.

At Culture OC, we intend to satisfy that demand.

We aim to help you determine what appeals to you, what doesn’t, and what’s worth spending your hard-earned money and free time on. And we want to discover, analyze and celebrate the people and events that give Orange County its distinctive and vibrant voice.

We welcome you to join us on this exploration. Let’s dive in.

— The editors of Culture OC

P.S. If you have read this far, we assume that this work is also important to you. Your support of this nonprofit news site is essential to helping us shape the cultural narrative of Orange County. We hope you will consider becoming a donor.



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