The Orange County Museum of Art has hired veteran curator and museum leader Heidi Zuckerman as its new CEO and director, OCMA announced Wednesday. She will start her new job Feb. 8.

Zuckerman, formerly the CEO and director of the Aspen Art Museum in Colorado, will succeed Todd D. Smith, who left OCMA in August to head the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte, North Carolina. Smith had been director and CEO of OCMA since August 2014.

“I am super excited to come” to OCMA, Zuckerman said in an interview. “I’ve been a long-term fan of the institution. I am beyond thrilled to be able to join the organization and welcome the largest possible audience into a space about art and ideas and innovation.

“One of the things that drew me to this institution is that it was founded by 13 women. That’s super–progressive. I’m excited to expand upon that legacy.”

Craig Wells, president of OCMA’s board of trustees and co-chair of the search committee that found Zuckerman, said OCMA picked her because she has “CEO experience, a good knowledge of art and artists, a background in diverse community programming, and experience in building a museum from the ground up, and managing staff through all this growth process.”

OCMA is in the midst of a major new museum construction project, located on the campus of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. The $75 million, 53,000-square-foot structure will feature nearly 25,000 square feet of gallery space, about 50% more space than its former location at 850 San Clemente Drive in Newport Center.

Design for the roof terrace at OCMA.

The multi-level museum was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect and his firm Morphosis. Clark Construction Group, headquartered in Maryland with offices in Irvine and San Diego, is the general contractor.

While originally scheduled to open in fall 2021, the new OCMA building is now expected to open in mid-2022.

Zuckerman has experience with new museum projects. She led the effort to construct the new, $45 million Aspen Art Museum, which was designed by Pritzker Prize-winner Shigeru Ban and opened in August 2014.

Overall, she raised over $75 million for that effort, she said, and secured more than $130 million in total investments for the museum.

A Career in Art

Zuckerman served as CEO and director of the Aspen Art Museum from 2005 to 2019. Prior to that, she was chair of the curatorial department at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

She also served as an assistant curator of 20th century art at The Jewish Museum in New York City for five years.

Zuckerman holds an honors bachelor’s degree in European history from the University of Pennsylvania. She received a master’s degree in art history from CUNY Hunter College, and is a graduate of Harvard Business School Executive Education, Women on Boards. She has curated more than 200 museum exhibitions, according to a news release.

During her interview with the search committee, she delivered a presentation that included a look back at OCMA’s history, in order “to blaze the trail forward,” Wells said.

“She knew of our history and exhibitions better than some of us who have been with the museum for a long time,” Wells said. “She loves art, she loves artists, and she’s bringing that passion to programming for a changing and diverse audience.”

Wells said the search for a new director and CEO — assisted by the search firm Koya Leadership Partners — included candidates from “various ethnic backgrounds” and a “diversity of gender and sexual persuasion.”

The issue of racial, ethnic, gender and class diversity has been on many people’s minds lately, as the United States emerges from a year of racial and social unrest and still faces difficult challenges ahead.

Not Just a Museum Director

Zuckerman left the Aspen Art Museum in a good financial and reputational situation in September 2019. While there were questions surrounding her departure that were largely unanswered, she said Thursday that she “kind of wanted to leave at the top of your game” like former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway, who’s well-regarded in Colorado.

“I wanted to explore other ways of contributing” to art, she said.

Indeed, she has done this, creating a podcast called “Conversations About Art,” featuring not just visual artists, but also musicians like Rufus Wainwright, innovators such as Sean Green from Arternal, writer and scholar Sarah Thornton, and Philip Tinari, director and CEO of the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

She has also authored the three-volume book series “Conversations with Artists,” with the third volume due to come out in October. And she served for three years as the chair of the YPO (Young Presidents’ Organization) Art Network. She’s still a member, but no longer chair.

Raised in Palo Alto, Zuckerman says she’s excited about moving to back to California, where she has a lot of friends and colleagues “who believe in the value of art and culture.” Thousands of artists and gallerists live and work in Southern California as well, she said.

“I’m excited to be welcomed into that community as well.”

She counts Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, as one of her mentors.

Zuckerman said she’s already purchased a home in Laguna Beach. She doesn’t really have an agenda once she starts at OCMA. Instead, she wants to meet with people and listen.

“My goal when I first start on the eighth of February is to talk to as many people as possible and really listen,” she said. “I want to ask, ‘Where do you think the opportunities are?’ I’m coming in as a collaborator, not coming in with pre-conceived notions.

“I don’t really know what’s on the schedule. But there are a lot of things to learn and experience.”

Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at rchang@voiceofoc.org.

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