Musings on the Coast

Art Outcasts Envision a New Venture 

Michael Ray

Over the years, I have been involved in many non-profits whose influence continues to reach every corner of the county, successes that often sprang from adversity. This column and others to follow will tell some of their surprising histories.

My involvement with non-profits began with Art Spaces Irvine, whose sole goal was to buy, donate and install statues in public venues in Irvine. We raised maybe $10,000 a year, bought nice pieces and placed them in public space. The city’s only real responsibility was to provide us with liability insurance in case some kid climbed on a statue, fell and hurt himself. Since Irvine is self-insured, the marginal cost to the city was zero.

Time passed and I became chair. Several board members became ambitious, notably Robert Smith, a community college psychology professor, and Roger Sykes, head of architecture at The Irvine Company. They dreamed of bigger things and wanted to help Irvine erase its plastic, over-planned image.  Roger thought the city needed an attic, a place where “stuff” that did not “fit in” could be nurtured. Robert wanted the city to create a giant park stretching between the 5 and 405 Freeways.

We all were dreaming big and it felt good. We even hired the original conceptual designer of Disneyland, Buzz Price, to conduct a study to determine what the county lacked. The study took months and involved local luminaries and big-picture thinkers. It concluded the county yearned for a hands-on science and technology center, where children could experience how science and technology works.

We were thrilled about the idea and its potential appeal at a huge new park in Irvine.

But several significant things happened. Our main political supporter, Irvine’s Mayor Larry Agran, was voted out of office. The early 1990s economy took a tumble and we knew our dreams had to be put on hold. And in the meantime, Christina Shea won election and then majority control of the Irvine City Council. Her position on “public art” was simple: there should not be any. Despite my pointing out that Art Spaces Irvine cost the city nothing and our art had been well received, we were put out of business.

Even so, Price’s study captivated my brother Walkie with the idea of a hands-on science museum. He became its one-man advocate. Since Irvine was out of the running, Walkie looked elsewhere and settled on Santa Ana, whose new mayor, Miguel Pulido, loved the idea.

Walkie went on to found the Taco Bell Discovery Science Center, which opened in 1998 and today is one of the most successful centers of its kind in the world.

More about the center and the real story next time.

Michael Ray grew up in CdM and now lives in Laguna Beach.  He makes a living as a real estate entrepreneur and is involved in many non-profits.


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  1. Francisco Barragan

    @ Michael Ray:

    Thank you for this article. I don’t have any artistic talent (too analytical I guess). But I always admire those who have and use their artistic talents. My daughter was born with artistic talent and ability (gets it from her mom. She attended SOTA in San Francisco.

    I think we need to expand from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) to steAm (with the “A” representing Art).

    Artists always make us see the world differently and to challenge our assumptions through their artistic expressions.

    thank you!

    Francisco J. Barragan

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