Interview: Jerry Van Leeuwen of California Center for the Arts

A Tradition of Artistic Excellence

California Center for the Arts, Escondido, has much to celebrate. This year commemorates the Center’s 20th Anniversary season. After a three-year break in their operations, the newly-invigorated organization has reentered the Southern California arts scene with energy and ambition to present top entertainment to arts aficionados.

The Center features some of the world’s most prominent performers in a diverse range of programs with wide appeal, from classical music to Broadway shows to popular performers such as Garrison Keillor and also sponsors museum exhibits and education programs. 

According to Escondido Mayor Sam Abed, “As Escondido’s cultural icon, the Center draws audiences to our city, driving the economy and showcasing our investment in the arts.” In this interview Executive Director Jerry Van Leeuwen adds his own perspective.

EM: Congratulations on California Center for the Arts, Escondido’s 20th Anniversary season! How would you describe your distinctive venue?  

JVL: The Center’s unique campus is situated on 12 sprawling acres of Grape Day Park and includes a 1,523–seat concert hall, a 404–seat theater, a contemporary art museum, art and dance studios and a full–service conference center with meeting and banquet facilities. The Center also runs an extensive education program and produces free community events, such as the Jazz Jam Sessions, Holiday Tree Lighting, Day of the Dead, 4th of July and WOW First Wednesdays performances. Our offerings attract over 250,000 people to our campus each year.

What is the Arts Center’s mission? 

Our mission is to bring people together to discover, create and celebrate the visual and performing arts.

Tell us about the Center’s re–launch.  

The re-launch was based on the Board of Trustees’ desire to re–enliven the Center through expanded programming while not incurring the financial risks seen in previous years. Solid market research, strategic marketing and public relations efforts allowed the Center to bring performing arts into a positive cash flow. In addition, new collaborations with other arts organizations have created a base for even more broad scope and exciting programs next season and beyond. Significant growth is anticipated in Visual Arts, Performing Arts and Education programs.

A very good plan indeed. What are some of the highlights of this Anniversary season? 

Broadly speaking, one of the main highlights of the season was presenting diverse programming that entices and engages audiences from in and around Escondido.  Our intention in creating such an eclectic season was multifaceted: we wanted to attract new audiences, re–energize our previous patrons and create an experience at the Center that will leave people wanting to come back for more. More specifically, other highlights include the sellouts of country music legend Merle Haggard, the boundary breaking duo the 2Cellos and Canadian guitarist Jesse Cook, along with near–sellouts of ukulele sensation Jake Shimabukuro and the big group known as the “little orchestra,” Pink Martini. We are looking forward to stand–up comedian Kathleen Madigan and the improv show Whose Live Anyway?  

Sounds exciting. How does input from the public impact your programming? 

Input from the public certainly influences our programming. This year, we have begun surveying our audience after each performance and have utilized this feedback to inform our decision–making on future programs and performances.  

What have been some of the most memorable artists and events in recent seasons?  

There was a moment in Jesse Cook’s show where he sang Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia.” At first, the audience sat quietly captivated by Jesse’s talent, but he then encouraged everyone to sing along with him. The crowd rose to their feet and joined along with the singing. To my left, I saw colleagues who had dedicated themselves to the Center through the years of successes and challenges. To my right, I saw faces young and old, new and familiar. These moments of celebration and community engagement are the realization of our mission and the reasons why we do what we do.

The importance of community input and outreach to younger audiences cannot be overestimated. Do you have anything you’d like to add to the above?

Our new season will reestablish and advance the Center as an essential component of arts and entertainment in San Diego. Our vibrant lineup, along with our art museum and community events, provide so many opportunities for people to experience the power of performance.

Many thanks, Jerry.

You’re very welcome.

To learn more about the Center’s season, including performance dates, times and ticket information, visit