CSUN Renames its arts jewel the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts, in recognition of a transformative $17 million gift.
In musical terms, California State University, Northridge’s performing arts center is considered the campus’ magnum opus. The glittering glass building that rises along Nordhoff Street has become one of the cultural jewels of the region since it opened in 2011.
In July, two powerful voices joined the chorus lifting up this jewel of the Los Angeles arts. CSUN President Dianne F. Harrison announced the renaming of CSUN’s Valley Performing Arts Center to the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts, in recognition of a $17 million gift from the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Family Foundation.
The gift is one of the largest in the history of the California State University and the system’s largest single gift to fund the arts. It will support the programming and operations of the award-winning performing arts center.
“Through this historic and transformational gift, Younes and Soraya Sarah Nazarian are investing in the elevating power of the arts and in the artists who enlighten and inspire us all,” Harrison said. “The Nazarians’ generosity is unlike any CSUN has ever experienced. The Nazarian family has made a profound and lasting impact on CSUN and the entire region. Younes and Soraya have ensured that we can continue to deliver the finest music, dance and theater events, engaging communities throughout Los Angeles and Southern California.
“Beyond the enormous benefit of their financial support, the Nazarians are so deeply intertwined with the fabric of Los Angeles, their support is a powerful statement about the role CSUN plays in our great city,” she continued. “A vibrant performing arts center on CSUN’s campus naturally connects to and extends the university’s mission. It mirrors our commitment to diversity and international outreach, the vigorous exchange of ideas and expression, and the overarching pursuit of excellence.”
“The Soraya” is the center’s new, preferred nickname. The name will be used informally throughout the 2017–18 season and formally unveiled at the start of the 2018–19 season. Soraya Sarah Nazarian, an internationally recognized sculptor, noted that the arts have enriched her life and highlighted her desire to share that gift with others.
“CSUN’s commitment to making the arts accessible, its inclusive approach to artistic programming, the university’s deep diversity and its vital place in the community all contributed to our family’s decision to make this investment,” she said.
Nazarian and her husband, businessman, investor and philanthropist Younes Nazarian, said they made the gift — one of the largest in Los Angeles arts history — because the mission of the center aligned seamlessly with the family’s own values.
“At CSUN, we found the perfect opportunity to impact the entire region by supporting two of our family’s most treasured values — education and the arts,” said Younes Nazarian. “My wife’s name, Soraya, means jewel [in Farsi], and this center is a jewel as well. It is very fitting that her name will grace this building that is itself beautiful and contains such artistic beauty on its stage.”
The Nazarian family’s support for CSUN started in 2014 when their son, David ’82 (Business Administration), a prominent businessman, philanthropist and CSUN alumnus, made a groundbreaking gift that was recognized by the naming of CSUN’s business college as the David Nazarian College of Business and Economics. In 2016, his parents donated 50 laptops to deserving business students and also were title sponsors for the 50th–anniversary celebration of the college, an event that capped a two-year, $25–million fundraising drive. Most recently, Soraya Sarah Nazarian, a sculptor who works with Carrara marble, created and donated a majestic original sculpture, Unbound, which was installed at CSUN’s Nazarian College.
“The Nazarian family’s character runs deep, such that Younes and Soraya, their children and now their grandchildren, do not rest on their tremendous personal and professional success,” said Robert Gunsalus, vice president for University Advancement and president of the CSUN Foundation. “They not only give with extraordinary generosity — they also are vigorous champions for the causes they support, which furthers what was already a bright future for The Soraya.
“The Nazarians are part of a growing number of savvy LA philanthropists who see the broad elevating force of the university and know that, through CSUN, their investments will have an amplified impact on the region,” he said.
The Nazarians moved from Iran to the United States in 1979 with their four children, fleeing the religiously targeted violence and demonstrations that led up to the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
Drawing on the entrepreneurial acumen he had in Iran — where he helped establish one of the largest import-export companies of construction machinery and equipment in the region — Younes Nazarian, soon after his arrival in the U.S., became co-owner of Stadco, a tool and dye manufacturer of specialty parts in the aerospace industry. He was an early investor and served on the board of directors of San Diego-based Qualcomm, Inc., a leader in wireless telecommunications research and development.
While her husband built businesses, Soraya Sarah Nazarian pursued her passion for art, establishing her own studio in LA. Her sculpture work carries themes of motherhood, family, spirituality and Iranian culture.
The Nazarians have long supported the arts. But the Soraya is, as arts and film writer Jeffrey Fleishman put it in the Los Angeles Times, “a new voice outside the traditional and geographic arts orbit. … The center reflects the area’s many communities, including concerts by Chinese classical pianist Yuja Wang, the Russian National Orchestra, Mariachi Vargas and Pakistan’s Sachal Jazz Ensemble.”
“Los Angeles is a very invigorating place to be in terms of art. It wasn’t always like that,” the Nazarians’ daughter, Sharon, president of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation, told Fleishman. “When we first came from Iran, LA was not really well known as a mecca of the art world. But I think today we’re a serious player. The creativity California represents is penetrating the arts world.
“We in the Iranian-American community are ready to make our mark in the arts and culture arena,” she continued. “It’s almost four decades since the revolution, and we feel as a family that we have a responsibility to give back to the community.
“CSUN is one of the most diverse universities in the country, in one of the most diverse cities in the world. We are proud to support its commitment to the arts — and to work with The Soraya’s passionate, creative and innovative Executive Director, Thor Steingraber, to improve education and cultural life for generations of Angelenos,” she said.
Shining a “Bright Light on
In the six years since opening its doors, the 1,700-seat Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts (nicknamed “The Soraya”) has grown to become one of LA’s most respected venues, and musicians often make it one of their regular stops on their North American tours. In the past three years, Executive Director Thor Steingraber has grown and diversified The Soraya’s programming to include a complete series of Latin and Mexican regional music, jazz and family programs. Steingraber also has welcomed many Southern California artists and music ensembles to create and present original work that might otherwise not find a home.
The Soraya extends its impact to the K-12 schools of the San Fernando Valley, serving up to 10,000 students annually with its arts education programs. The center also serves CSUN undergraduates and graduate students, sharing its stage with student artists in dance, opera, jazz and other performing arts. As the artists on stage have diversified, so have the audiences, growing to reflect one of the nation’s most diverse campuses, as well as the diversity of LA itself.
“The Nazarians’ gift goes a long way to securing a future of great music and performances worthy of such an exceptional venue, and more so, their visionary leadership reflects the values of the arts in the 21st century, especially accessibility and inclusion,” Steingraber said of the recent $17 million gift from the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation.
The center’s 2017-18 season, themed Music Knows No Borders, builds on the acclaimed lineups of international artists in recent seasons. This year, artists from 14 different countries will shine “a bright light on our differences, to affirm how much we have in common,” Steingraber said. These include Israeli clarinet virtuoso Anat Cohen on Nov. 30, famed Japanese drummers Yamato, and ¡La Nueva Cuba! The Next Generation on April 21 with jazz artists Roberto Fonseca, Daymé Arocena and Pedrito Martinez Group.
On Sept. 16, CSUN President Dianne F. Harrison helped kick off the new season with Younes and Soraya Sarah Nazarian and their extended family, along with a sell-out crowd. After a celebratory pre-show reception, the center’s Great Hall hosted a thrilling screening of the 1984 Oscar winner Amadeus, accompanied by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and members of the LA Opera Chorus, under the direction of CSUN alumnus and distinguished conductor Richard Kaufman ’77 (Music).
From the stage and in the audience at The Soraya, the future sounds bright.
For more information about the center, visit valleyperformingartscenter.org.