The massive new Orange County Art Museum under construction is still largely a blank canvas — but it won’t be when it opens in about four months.
As the walls of the 53,000 square foot museum take shape, its new chief curator, Courtenay Finn, chooses what will fill that blank canvas so that future visitors experience something vibrant or unexpected or challenging, perhaps- be even before entering the building.
Twice the size of OCMA’s former home in Newport Beach, the new building provides Finn with a variety of indoor and outdoor galleries, terraces, and plazas of different sizes and character to play with. Deciding how to furnish all those empty spaces can be a process of diligence, but also of discovery.
Finn regularly visits the site to familiarize himself with the building. She browses the database of some 5,000 works by CMAO collection, and she tries to spend a day a week in the art storage vaults, extracting pieces from artists she doesn’t know as well, “trying to think beyond the greatest hits genre of the collection”.
And sometimes, when museum staff move other works of art to get to the work they want to see, something unexpected turns up.
“It’s kind of the same thing that happens when you go to the library and pull a book out of the pile, sometimes what’s around it influences you,” Finn said.
Organizing a museum can also feel like a game. Finn said they use foam core models from OCMA’s galleries and scaled-down replicas of the works they envision – like an adult dollhouse or a Lego set.
And sometimes it’s like assembling furniture from IKEA.
OCMA director Heidi Zuckerman said she was delighted to learn that the collection included a “monumental” work by the sculptor and artist Alice Aycock that the museum has never shown publicly.
Created in the 1980s, the large-scale installation is a device of wood and wire that evokes a machine of unknown function.
But it was stored disassembled. Museum staff combed through their records for information about the piece, but found no instructions.
So someone phoned the 75-year-old artist, and when OCMA’s temporary home in South Coast Plaza Village closed in 2021, they used the space to “figure out like a puzzle how to put this work together. “, Zuckerman said.
Inspiration and collaboration
Finn, 40, is new to Southern California but a veteran of the art scene in several other states. She previously worked with Zuckerman at the Aspen Art Museum, where they also helped open a new building.
With a background in printmaking and textiles, Finn studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art with the intention of being a designer. But she continued to hang out at other people’s studios, speaking and writing about their work and hosting shows.
“It became apparent that I was much more interested in what other people were doing,” she said, so she focused on conservation.
Finn’s niche is living artists rather than dead artists, and she tries to get to know them as people and then share those ideas with a museum audience.
“It’s really important for me to remember that artists are human beings — they have families, they watch ‘Law and Order,’ they go to the grocery store,” she said.
Its approach to conservation is dynamic and interactive. Finn brings artists into the new museum to inspire them on how they might use the space.
She wants to change shows and exhibits frequently so there’s something new to see regularly — and since OCMA’s neighbors are the concert hall, two theaters and the opera house that make up the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, Finn will work with his counterparts there. to fashion programs that complement each other.
“The opportunity is really going to be to create new avenues of collaboration, and I think that’s really exciting for the community,” said Anton Segerstrom, whose family philanthropy helped establish the center; he is also a member of the museum’s board of directors.
Or, as Casey Reitz, president of the Segerstrom Center, put it, the addition of OCMA “completes the campus.”
The museum and performing arts venues will work together on education programs for youth and the community, they will be able to organize performances and exhibitions linked by common themes, and they will sell each other so that when someone one comes to the center, “they’re enjoying a full day of arts in Orange County,” Reitz said.
With its public unveiling just months away, the OCMA plans to commemorate the occasion with its own full arts day that Zuckerman hopes will make visitors feel welcomed, appreciated, joyful and inspired.
Opening day will be a 24-hour event, with live music, food, a yoga class, art-making activities, late-night movies and, of course, tours of the new museum – all showing “how it’s a place where we want people to come and bring other people and hang out,” Finn said.
This diversity of experiences reflects what Finn wants OCMA to be known for long after the festivities are over. And, thanks to a $2.5 million donation announced last fall, the museum plans to offer free admission for the next 10 years.
While visitors can expect to find paintings, sculptures and other mediums that people generally consider fine art, Finn said she wanted to celebrate all kinds of creative work – including design, crafts, fashion and music – from artists at all stages of their careers. .
What she’s really trying to do is make the museum experience less stuffy – not so much by telling people what “art” is, but rather by encouraging them to ask questions and explore. ideas, even when they are confusing or frustrating.
A more traditional museum might see its role as imparting knowledge to visitors, Finn said, but at OCMA “we come from a place where we’re really excited and we care about it and we want to share it with you “.