Santa Ana’s Long Love Affair With the Arts

Santa Ana’s Long Love Affair With the Arts

The city’s creative roots range from vaudeville to indigenous art

It seems Santa Ana has become one big stage. On any given day, visitors to Orange County’s administrative and cultural core can experience avant-garde exhibits from up-and-coming artists, world-class student performance art, ancient artifacts from around the world, and even a performance by the Pacific Symphony in an intimate micro-venue.

But how did Santa Ana become OC’s epicenter of artistic activity?

Santa Ana’s roots as a destination for the arts, entertainment and culture go back nearly as far as the City itself. Ever since the Yost Theater raised its curtain as the region’s first vaudeville theater more than a century ago, Santa Ana has been home to painters, sculptors, actors, artisans, musicians, chefs, filmmakers and creative-based schools and businesses.

One of OC’s first fine art attractions was the Bowers Museum, which christened its Mission Revival-style campus on Santa Ana’s Main Street in 1936 as the county history museum. The museum’s footprint has evolved over the years to include artwork and artifacts from around the world – with a permanent collection of more than 100,000 objects representing indigenous Native American, African, Asian and Oceanic cultures. A rotating schedule of new exhibits keeps the museum relevant to both students and serious patrons.

As the local population grew during the latter part of the 20th century, the Santa Ana art community flourished and developed its own style reflective of the city’s diverse population and culture. In 1980, the OC Center for Contemporary Art (OCCCA) opened in a historic building at 2nd Street and Sycamore Street, in a then-obscure corner of downtown. This nonprofit “alternative-space gallery and creative think-tank” celebrates nearly 40 years of exhibiting forward-thinking, socially-conscious work from local artists.

The landscape changed dramatically in 1994 when California State University, Fullerton (CSUF), founded the CSUF Grand Central Art Center, This student- and artist-in-residence partnership between the City and CSUF’s College of the Arts is dedicated to contemporary art and visual culture. Its three main galleries host socially-engaged, community-based exhibitions and showings.

Together, the CSUF Grand Central Art Center and OC Center for Contemporary Art inspired development of Santa Ana’s now-burgeoning Artists Village – a colorful enclave of live/work artist studios, galleries and restaurants occupying a series of restored historic buildings in and around the four-square blocks bounded by 1st and 3rd Streets and Main and Broadway.

Love for the arts spread to younger ages when the city became the permanent home of the Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) in 2000. Cementing Santa Ana as a center of arts education in Southern California, this world-renowned 7th-12th grade public charter school serves as a talent incubator in film, TV, theater, dance, fine art, music, visual studies, the culinary arts and more – and offers a continually evolving calendar of performance, concerts, exhibits and other public events.

Given Santa Ana’s past, it’s no surprise that it has also become a magnet for creative-based businesses. Recognizing the city’s artistic promise, DGWB moved from an Irvine, Calif., office park to the vacant 1935 Santa Ana City Hall Building in 2000 to recharge its creative roots and connect more authentically with its clients and community. The award-winning ad and PR firm, now known as Amusement Park, houses three floors of designers, producers, filmmakers, writers, musicians, and artists that add to the city’s creative tapestry – and offers the ground floor to smaller marketing and media services firms.

Inevitably, other entrepreneurs have followed wanting to blend the creative vibe with the latest digital infrastructure, including culinary social media giant FoodBeast, and electronic gaming center eSports Arena.

Predicting the next chapter in Santa Ana’s creative story is anybody’s game. But one thing is certain: those of us fortunate to be able to experience the city’s transformation firsthand aren’t complaining.

Cover Photo: Art Installation by Michael Nannery