Creativity Lives Here

Culture and the arts are surprisingly walkable in Santa Ana

Most of the world knows Orange County as the home of Laguna and Newport Beach, Mickey Mouse and The Real Housewives of Orange County.  But few know that at OC’s geographic and historic core is a City with a distinctive creative vibe that is older than most of the rest of Southern California – and still thriving today.

Yes, we’re talking about Santa Ana.

Where else can you find the region’s first vaudeville theater (still in use) and one of the country’s most prominent high schools for the arts? Plus 60 art galleries, several distinct artist districts, two destination museums, an e-sports arena and hundreds of painters, sculptors, actors, artisans, musicians, chefs, filmmakers and other creative types – all within a few blocks of each other?

What started with the Yost Theater in 1913 has blossomed into a century-long, city-wide commitment to arts, entertainment and creativity.   

On any given day, visitors can enjoy world-class live music, theater and art exhibits in Santa Ana. Best of all, experiencing these attractions doesn’t require a car, since most are located within the downtown area.

For first-time visitors and veteran art lovers alike, here is the ultimate Santa Ana creative walking tour:

A fitting start is Artists Village, a colorful enclave of live/work artist studios, galleries and folksy eateries. The four-square blocks bounded by 3rd and 1st Streets and Broadway and Main are the most strollable – but there are visit-worthy attractions throughout the neighborhood.

An area highlight and main impetus for growth of the Artists Village is the CSUF Grand Central Art Center at 125 N. Broadway, overlooking the pedestrian-friendly 2nd Street.  Here you'll find three galleries that exhibit socially engaged, community-based exhibitions and showings from students and residents.

For boundary-pushing, avant-garde art, cross the street to the OC Center for Contemporary Art at 117 N. Sycamore, showcasing cutting-edge work by local artists. This nonprofit alternative exhibition space and creative incubator features a constant rotation of forward-thinking exhibits destined to make a social and cultural impact.

Should you find yourself in the area on the first Saturday of the month, savor the Downtown Santa Ana Artwalk, in and around 201 N. Bush Street, when the Artists Village bursts to life with an open house of art exhibits, gallery openings, live performances, shopping and dining specials.  

Cinephiles will want to head for Frida Cinema, at 305 E. 4th St #100, for OC’s only nonprofit community movie theater. This intimate venue opened in 2012 as a “year-round film festival,” presenting a diverse selection of independent, classic and avant-garde films, plus live events.

Santa Ana celebrates artists-in-training, too. When it moved to its expanding campus at 1010 N. Main Street in 2000, the Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) permanently cemented Santa Ana as the epicenter of arts education in Southern California. The school offers an ongoing calendar of public events, making it one of the best local spots to catch the next film, TV, theater, or music star. 

Further up Main Street is Bowers Museum, a world-class regional art museum housing a permanent collection of more than 100,000 objects from ancient Native American, African, Asian and Oceanic cultures. 

For a more eclectic experience, visit Logan Creative, OC’s most diverse collection of working artists specializing in industrial mediums – glassblowing, metal and woodwork, ceramics and the like. Hidden in this former staircase factory-turned-artist-compound at 802 E. Washington Ave. is Blinking Owl Distillery, the county’s first craft distillery pouring vodka, whiskey, gin and other spirits.  

Many of Santa Ana’s best exhibits and performances aren’t confined to a permanent address. Santa Ana Sites is an innovative mashup of community partnership and traveling forum that presents contemporary performances in public and private spaces throughout Downtown. These immersive events allow the public to experience world-class orchestras, dance companies, vocal artists and acting groups in an intimate setting.

For the latest schedule of public offerings, visit the continually updated website.

Artwork by Jorge Marín