Orange County Gets a World-Class Contemporary Art Museum

A relaunched California Biennial, free admission, and the end of a 14 year-long project: here's everything to know about the Thom Mayne-designed Orange County Museum of Art as it nears its October 8 opening.

The Orange County Museum of Art, designed by Morphosis Architects. Credit: Mike Kelley

Long in the cultural shadow of its northern neighbor Los Angeles, Orange County’s cultural scene is finally getting its moment in the sun with the forthcoming Orange County Museum of Art. Formerly the Newport Harbor Art Museum, its new 53,000-square-foot home is the area’s largest contemporary art institution and the jewel of Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts—the West Coast’s unofficial counterpart to Lincoln Center.

The $94 million project, designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Thom Mayne, has been 14 years in the making. Overseen by director Heidi Zuckerman, the programming will even include a revival of the California Biennial.

Zuckerman brings a community-driven vision and a proven track record to her post at OCMA. The director is credited with cultivating the Aspen Art Museum’s status as a preeminent contemporary art destination with exhibitions by Yto Barrada and Danh Vo, along with a Shigeru Ban–led redesign. Appointed to the top post at OCMA in February of 2021, Zuckerman oversaw the new museum’s construction, working collaboratively with Mayne on creating a community-centric space.

Installation view of Alicia McCarthy, Untitled (20) (2022) on view in California Biennial 2022: Pacific Gold (October 8, 2022 – February 26, 2023) Orange County Museum of Art, Costa Mesa, CA. Credit: ofstudio

$2.5 million grant from Newport-based Lugano Diamonds has allowed Zuckerman to implement her vision of free admission—at least for the next decade. “We know that contemporary art can be weird or scary for people, so to remove as many barriers to entry as possible, it’s just a dream come true,” she tells the L.A. Times.

Visitors can look forward to California-centric programming that incorporates the work of artists statewide. Zuckerman curated “13 Women,” an exhibition of the museum’s permanent collection that honors the 13 volunteers who opened Balboa Pavilion Gallery (eventually renamed Newport Harbor Museum of Art, and later OCMA), which they renovated and operated themselves. The inaugural show will feature work by Alice Aycock, Lee Bul, Barbara Kruger, Joan Brown, Vija Celmins, Mary Corse, Mary Heilmann, Charles Ray, John Altoon, Chris Burden, and Richard Diebenkorn. A presentation of Light and Space artist Fred Eversley’s work is also on hand.

Then there’s the revival of the California Biennial, organized by an intergenerational curatorial team including former OCMA curator and past Biennial curator Elizabeth Armstrong, the Phoenix Museum’s Gilbert Vicario, and California African American Museum’s Essence Harden. The show will feature the work of 20 California artists whose work explores the chasm between the Golden State’s mythology and the realities of life there.

Installation view of California Biennial 2022: Pacific Gold (October 8, 2022 – February 26, 2023) Orange County Museum of Art, Costa Mesa, CA. Credit: ofstudio

Though his name is attached to cultural projects like Dallas’s Perot Museum of Nature and Science and despite a known affinity for the visual arts, Thom Mayne of L.A. firm Morphosis had never designed an art museum until OCMA. In addition to the building’s curvaceous forms clad in white terracotta tiles, angled atrium awash in natural light, and glass footbridges, one of its defining features is an expansive outdoor staircase that he and Zuckerman hope will become a gathering space in the spirit of The Met steps.

The museum is poised to have a significant impact on a new generation, continuing the legacy of its predecessors in Balboa and Newport. “Born and raised in Orange County, I didn’t have a lot of exposure to contemporary art in my youth,” John Spiak, director and chief curator of the Grand Central Art Center in nearby Santa Ana, told Hyperallergic. “In 1989, at the invitation of a girlfriend taking an art history class, I visited the Newport Harbor Art Museum (now OCMA). I saw an exhibition that changed my world, “American Video Landscape,” organized by the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. I credit OCMA and that specific exhibition as the reason I am a curator today.”

Given all the recent drama and disappointing news surrounding the L.A. art scene—the LACMA redesign fiasco, and the shuttering of the Marciano Foundation and Underground Museum, to name a few—the debut of the new OCMA is a nice feel-good story and moment of triumph for Orange County

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