It was once a lima bean field.

Then it was a grassy field, then a dirt lot.

Now, the new, $94.5 million Orange County Museum of Art has been completed (minus a few tiny details), sitting just east of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, itself finished in 2006.

The 53,000 square-foot OCMA – designed by Culver City-based firm Morphosis Architects, founded by Pritzker Prize winner Thom Mayne – completes the arts and culture puzzle that is the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. For decades, the late businessman and philanthropist Henry Segerstrom (one of the men behind South Coast Plaza) had envisioned a visual art museum as part of the Segerstrom Center campus, and finally, in October 2022, his dream is coming true.

It wasn’t without a little bit of difficulty along the way. Long ago, Renzo Piano was the architect chosen for the new museum, but his ideas and estimated budget were deemed immodest and outsized, and were eventually scrapped.

The museum encountered some troubles selling its old Newport Center/San Clemente Drive property. An early plan to incorporate condominiums above the museum was also abandoned. One CEO and director left OCMA in medias res in August 2020, and another one, Heidi Zuckerman, was hired in January 2021, starting in February 2021.   

Oh, and there was a global pandemic and supply chain issues over the past two years.

But now, the multi-level shrine to modern and contemporary art is finished, and a few special gatherings and civic celebrations have already christened it open. OCMA will officially open to the public at 5 p.m. Oct. 8 with a 24-hour party that will include a drumline procession down the Avenue of the Arts, a rooftop dance party with KCRW DJ Jason Bentley, exhibition tours, fireworks, a late-night “silent disco” with differently colored headphones, art-making projects, “movies for insomniacs,” performances by local arts groups and sunrise yoga.

“I am incredibly energized and excited to be at this moment,” Zuckerman said. “I’m so excited to be welcoming in people. If the past two years have taught us anything, it’s how much we need the experience of communal spaces, where new connections can be made, and where unexpected conversations can happen. That’s where the sparks of creativity fly.”

The new museum comes with 25,000 square feet of exhibition space, which doubles the capacity OCMA had before. The building features an exterior grand staircase, an education pavilion, a suspension walkway, an Upper Plaza on the roof terrace, administrative offices, a gift shop called The Mind, a coffee bar and the Verdant Cafe. The façade consists of white terra cotta tiles that undulate and create a sweeping form that plays off the forms and palette of neighboring structures, such as the concert hall next door.

A rendering of the proposed entrance for the new building for the Orange County Museum of Art, left, and a photo of the entrance on Sept. 28, 2022. Credit: Rendering courtesy of Morphosis, photo by Heide Janssen, Voice of OC

“We’re not building a building per se, but we’ve built a public space. It’s a piazza,” said Mayne, who has worked on this project for 14 years. “We’re part of the construction of an urban world.”

Mayne said Costa Mesa – which he lassoes into the greater “Los Angeles area” – is still relatively young, and compared this region to other cities of the world, which seem to be more conscious of arts and culture in their initial design.

“In China, they’re much clearer about it top down,” he said. “You make cities and then with the city comes an opera hall and a museum, and it’s just understood that cities come with these cultural (buildings), even if they’re not sure what’s in them.

“We’re part of the construction of a city, and we’re the last increment of this cultural hub that deals with visual arts. They’ve covered theater and the opera hall and the music hall and … we’re the last increment.”

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Brandon Welling of Morphosis was the partner-in-charge for this project. He had his boots on the ground since the beginning, when it was a dirt pit with some steel beams shooting out of it.

“It’s been a great process,” Welling said. “This is our first art museum to be completed, which is really meaningful to everybody, and to Thom and I especially.”

Though the designs for the new OCMA were revealed in 2018, before the coronavirus pandemic changed everything, the decision to emphasize exterior and outdoor space, while blurring interior and exterior boundaries, seems to be quite prescient in this day and age, when people seem to be more comfortable with gathering outdoors than huddling indoors.

“It’s good timing, given the current status of sense of urban space,” Mayne said. “But it’s also California. It’s architecture today.”

Opening Exhibitions

The O.C. Museum of Art is opening with four new exhibitions, plus an outdoor sculpture on the roof terrace. “13 Women” celebrates the museum’s 60th anniversary, and pays homage to the 13 women who founded the Balboa Pavilion Gallery, the earliest incarnation of OCMA, in 1962.

Curated by Zuckerman, “13 Women” features works by Alice Aycock, Joan Brown, Lee Bul, Lucy Bull, Sarah Cain, Vija Celmins, Mary Corse, Mary Heilmann, Barbara Kruger, Cady Noland, Catherine Opie, Hilary Pecis and Agnes Pelton.

Zuckerman has told this story a few times, but the inspiration for “13 Women” came when she was interviewing for the job as CEO and director. James B. Pick, the board chair of collections, asked what her first exhibition from the permanent collection might be, and she responded, “Thirteen women. I’d curate an exhibition that honors the 13 visionary founders of this institution.”

Zuckerman jokes that perhaps it should be called “13 women, and a few guys,” because indeed there are a few men in the show, including John Altoon, John Baldessari, Chris Burden, Charles Ray and Richard Diebenkorn, whose “Ocean Park #36” (1970) is a key and treasured oil on canvas in the permanent collection.

“13 Women” also features “Here is for the first time again,” a new, site-specific painting by Sarah Cain in the Avenue of the Arts Gallery, which is visible from the sidewalk and street outside.

Another significant exhibition is the return of the California Biennial, 2022 edition. Back in 2013, former chief curator Dan Cameron re-imagined the biennial – whose last iteration was in 2010 – as the California-Pacific Triennial. The 2017 rendition of the CPT, “Building as Ever,” was kind of a dud, and the reception was lukewarm.

So the California Biennial has made a triumphant comeback, and the theme is “Pacific Gold” – which gets its name from one of the works in the show. This year’s biennial has been organized by former OCMA chief curator Elizabeth Armstrong, with Essence Harden, visual arts curator at the California African American Museum, and Gilbert Vicario, chief curator at the Phoenix Art Museum.

The biennial features more than 60 works, covering a range of media including ceramics, painting, sculpture, textiles, mixed media, video and large-scale installations. Artists include Sharon Ellis, Raúl Guerrero, Candice Lin, Narsiso Martinez, Simphiwe Ndzube, Alicia McCarthy, Claire Rojas, Ben Sakoguchi and Lily Stockman.

On view in OCMA’s new, sleek mezzanine gallery (named after James B. and Rosalyn L. Pick) is “Fred Eversley: Reflecting Back (the World).” It’s an awe-inspiring retrospective of Eversley’s polyester resin sculptures, covering five decades of work. Eversley was an important representative of California’s Light and Space movement; yet unlike his peers, he was an actual scientist as well, coming to Southern California in the 1960s and working as a consulting engineer for NASA. This exhibition was conceived by former senior curator Cassandra Coblentz and organized by new chief curator Courtenay Finn. Finn says that during construction, she and her team created foam-core models of the galleries and tiny replicas of the artworks that would go in them.

“We would move the works around,” she said. “We just wanted to try to understand how to deal with the spaces. It was like playing in an adult dollhouse.”  

“Peter Walker: Minimalist Landscape” pays homage to the history of landscape design at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts from the 1980s to the 2000s. It focuses on the work of Walker, one of the leading landscape architects of the Modernist movement and a co-designer for the National 9/11 Memorial.

Orange County Museum of Art

Where: Orange County Museum of Art, 3333 Avenue of the Arts, Costa Mesa

Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays

The 24-hour opening party starts at 5 p.m. Oct. 8 and ends at 5 p.m. Oct. 9

Cost: Free

Information: ocma.art   

Finally, the outdoor sculpture “Of many waters …” by Sanford Biggers was commissioned for the opening of the new museum. It’s a 24-foot-wide, 16-foot-tall multimedia sculpture of a reclining male figure with a 19th century Baule double-face mask assembled from metal sequins. It sits at the edge of the Upper Plaza on the roof terrace and the steps that descend halfway down toward the Argyros Plaza.

Free for All

In keeping with the notions of inclusivity and accessibility, admission to the new OCMA will be free to the public for the first 10 years. This includes the 24-hour opening party, and is made possible by a $2.5 million gift from Newport Beach-based Lugano Diamonds.

“Just as you feel that there’s no hard and fast barrier in our building between outside and inside, there’s no economic barrier to experience our exhibitions and our programs,” Zuckerman said. “Our mission here is to enrich the lives of people in a diverse and fast-changing community …. Access to art is a basic human right. It’s not a privilege.”   

Even after 10 years are done, Zuckerman said her goal is to have admission “permanently endowed.” That would mean free admission for as long as the new museums stands at its new Segerstrom Center home.

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


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