The California Center for the Arts, Escondido has a history of being a resilient non-profit organization, a characteristic that has served it well in the tumultuous year that is 2020. When the Center’s stages, museum, and conference center went dark in mid-March it would have been a painful, but somewhat simpler path to go into hibernation as many arts organizations across the county have been forced to do.
“We had every reason to give up, but our staff and our Board of Directors felt strongly that we had to keep showing up for our community,” said Executive Director Jerry Van Leeuwen. “Our mission of bringing people together to experience joy through the arts is more important now than ever. People need the arts, they need to feel connected. But we had to innovate our approach and find partners to help.”
Staff began scouting locations and brainstorming with partners to bring a modern drive-in to North County where guests could enjoy movies as well as live music and comedy safely from the comfort of their vehicle. Sound tests were done, city permits were completed, neighbors were notified, and contracts signed. In mid-August, the Center kicked off the series in the former Nordstrom parking lot at Westfield North County with multiple sold-out shows.
From the beginning, this endeavor was about helping numerous groups within our community. “Even as we were struggling, we recognized that this opportunity was a gift and we wanted to give back,” Van Leeuwen stated. “We made free tickets available to veterans and have committed a portion of proceeds from the series to be shared with The Escondido Community Foundation and The Central San Diego Black Chamber of Commerce.”
This venture gave people their jobs back. Center staff and Local IATSE 122 union stagehands rallied to bring a stage to life with state-of-the-art lighting, LED screens, and surround sound in the sweltering heat- while masked up of course! “The Drive-In Series provided work not just for our staff but for the crew and performers whose livelihood has been blindsided by the pandemic, stated Director of Performing Arts, Julianna Crespo. “We were proud to offer work for Active Working Women housekeeping and other local companies that brought in everything from fencing to port-a-potties. Restaurants and stores in the mall reported an increase in business each weekend from the hundreds of patrons we brought to their doorstep as well.”
The light at the end of the tunnel seemed a little brighter for all. However, the Center’s resiliency would soon be put to the test again.
Westfield notified Center staff that they had inadvertently double-booked 100 parking lot spaces of a salon and needed the entire operation moved immediately. “We have seen so many inspiring instances of businesses pulling together with their neighbors to make outdoor operations possible during these challenging times. We were hopeful once this tenant understood these events were for charitable purposes and were important to our community, we could find our way to a compromise.” Van Leeuwen said.
But that was not the case. In joint efforts by the Center and Westfield, the salon was offered rent reductions, lease payments for the parking spots, reserved parking signage in the next closest lot, free sponsorship, and advertising to the thousands of drive-in customers and more which their corporate management declined. “We were told they wanted nothing but the 100 parking spots which were under our stage,” VanLeeuwen said.
As such, Center staff started dismantling the stage over Labor Day weekend. “It was heartbreaking.” VanLeeuwen shared. “The expected revenues from these concerts were budgeted to fund everything from virtual arts programming for students to bringing The World of Frida exhibition to our museum. We had staff volunteering to take pay cuts to ensure programs would not suffer. These are the kind of amazing people we have working at the Center. Together, our board, staff, donors, and volunteers will figure something out. You can count on it. The Center will share an official announcement regarding a new home for the drive-in this week. Stay tuned.”
About the California Center for the Arts, Escondido
A 501(c)3 charitable organization, the Center’s creation was sparked by a civic vision—one that recognized the vital role that the arts play in strengthening and uniting the community. Our commitment to enriching lives and improving access to the arts, especially for low-income individuals and families, is exemplified through our extensive educational programming and robust series of free community events. The Center is guided by an enthusiastic Board of Trustees and passionate staff who are dedicated to furthering arts education and access, and to creating programs that provide cultural enrichment for residents of North County and beyond.
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