The Holy Grail of the Orange County arts world has been elusive for many years: a permanent museum that would complete Costa Mesa’s cultural campus, adjacent to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts complex and not far from South Coast Repertory. That grassy field east of the concert hall, long ago earmarked for an art museum, has stood empty, a constant reminder of a dream unfulfilled.
Finally there’s a plan afoot and an architectural model to make the dream seem worth the wait. It was front and center at last weekend’s grand opening of OCMAExpand Santa Ana, a handsome and surprisingly well-suited temporary space in South Coast Plaza Village that will serve as the home for the Orange County Museum of Art until its permanent building is finished.
For decades, the prospect of a new edifice for the Orange County Museum of Art and its predecessor, the Newport Harbor Art Museum, remained unattainable. Dreams have taken form; blueprints drawn up and abandoned; architects considered, commissioned, and dropped; alliances attempted and rejected.
In the 1980s, the then-Newport Harbor Art Museum seriously pursued an elegant design by renowned architect Renzo Piano that would have occupied a 10-acre site in Newport Beach. But it never came to fruition. In the 1990s, an effort to merge Newport Harbor Art Museum and the Laguna Art Museum failed, and in the resulting realignment of resources the former changed its name to the Orange County Museum of Art.
The latest effort, now a decade in the making, started as a proposal to build a 72,000-square-foot, $60-million multi-purpose building in the Segerstrom Center space. But fundraising difficulties, a recession and other obstacles got in the way.
Finally, it looks as though Orange County’s art lovers are going to get what has been promised for so long. Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne of Morphosis, a prestigious Los Angeles firm, has drawn up a stylish, forward-looking plan. Construction bids are in the offing. OCMA officials are expecting to move in sometime in 2021.
In the meantime, there was an immediate need for temporary space. OCMA’s Newport building was sold for $24 million in May (proceeds from the transaction were crucial to moving the project forward), and the museum had to maintain a robust presence, preferably in the neighborhood where its new home would be.
An ingenious solution has been found, thanks to the generosity of South Coast Plaza. A vacant two-story building, the former home of the Room & Board furniture store, has been smartly adapted to create an airy space of several galleries, many illuminated with natural light.
“It’s actually larger than the old Newport museum,” said OCMA director and CEO Todd D. Smith. “It’s much better than we could have hoped for.”
The galleries are grouped around a large central staircase that splits into two after it reaches a shallow landing. On the second floor, many of the galleries benefit from diffused light coming through skylights and large windows. Vaulted ceilings in some galleries create an air of extra spaciousness.
There’s enough room for items from the permanent collection to be displayed along with several seasonal exhibits. OCMA spokesman Todd Bentjen said the museum is planning six full seasons of exhibitions over the three-year occupancy.
At the official opening on Saturday, six artists were each well represented by large and ambitious works, yet several galleries remained unused. “Forsaken Utopias: Photos from the OCMA Permanent Collection” was also on view.
Pride of place has been given near the temporary museum’s entrance to a detailed architectural model of the proposed new building.
“This is the third version of Thom’s plan, although it’s only the first one I’ve been involved with,” Smith said. Mayne has been involved with the project for a decade, pre-dating Smith’s tenure. “We went back to Thom three years ago and said, ‘Let’s really think about this from a fresh perspective. You’ve changed as an architect. The site has changed. Argyros Plaza is going to be built. Let’s take another look.’”
The result is a building that Smith thinks will work in quiet synergy with the built environment around it. “The front façade sort of picks up the wave (of the concert hall façade) without mirroring it. And there’s a grand staircase now that interacts in interesting ways with the Richard Serra sculpture and other elements of the plaza that the previous design hadn’t done.”
As Smith explained the details of the new building, using the model as a guide, OCMAExpand began to fill with an enthusiastic opening-day crowd. Many marveled at its size and the quality of its galleries.
Smith said he looks forward to more full houses. “The museum will benefit from being more centrally located. It’s important to be where the people are.” Segerstrom Center for the Arts and South Coast Repertory are only a few blocks away from OCMAExpand. With ample parking near the front entrance, free admission, and late hours that encourage making the museum part of a multi-part excursion extending into the evening, Smith may have found the perfect way to prime a new audience for OCMA as it prepares to play a more prominent cultural role.
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org