By Barbara McMurray, Special to The Independent
Laguna Beach has long attracted artists and lovers of art. It is also home to Heidi Zuckerman, CEO and director of the Orange County Museum of Art, an impressive new building under construction in Costa Mesa set to open on Oct. 8.
“We are building the museum that Orange County deserves,” Zuckerman said. “There is no other structure like it in Orange County. The level of complexity of the facility and high level of design and specificity are unprecedented.”
She is working with Thom Mayne, a Pritzker Prize winner and Morphosis Architects founder who designed the state-of-the-art, 53,000 square foot building. It is twice the size of the museum’s former location near Fashion Island in Newport Beach.
The building’s unique indoor-outdoor design includes retractable walls, skylights, a spacious roof terrace for exhibitions and events, and a voluminous lobby atrium that can be configured as a black-box theater or a light-filled studio. Gallery space totaling 25,000 square feet will showcase the museum’s contemporary art collection and major traveling exhibitions. A grand stairway and plaza create an inviting public gathering space.
A Palo Alto native, Zuckerman fell in love with art at a young age. She held curatorial posts at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and the Jewish Museum in New York. As CEO and director of the Aspen Art Museum for 14 years, she oversaw the construction of a new building by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Shigeru Ban before departing in late 2019 to host a podcast, “Conversations About Art” and write a book series, “Conversations with Artists.” She arrived at OCMA in January 2021.
Her preternatural calm belies that she’s in charge of a dizzying array of logistics. She is masterminding the construction details of a highly unusual building, curating one of the five shows that will open the museum, and acting as its spokesperson. Her OCMA curatorial debut is “13 Women,” a nod to the visionary women who founded the original museum on Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach in 1962. She has also added 25 new objects to OCMA’s 4,500-plus holdings and hired most of the current 22-member staff.
When open, the museum will have 40 full-time employees, one of whom will be a building engineer she’s about to hire. That staffer will be tasked with learning and managing the state-of-the-art facility’s intricate infrastructure.
It helps that Zuckerman is a devoted yoga and meditation practitioner who can view the world through a zen lens. Playing in a pickleball league also provides stress relief.
The new OCMA building is another jewel in the region’s cultural campus, joining the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, South Coast Repertory, and the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at the Julianne and George Argyros Plaza. Its striking centerpiece is “Connector,” Richard Serra’s 65-foot high Corten steel sculpture.
The outdoor public areas beckon visitors to lounge and linger. On Earth Day, crews planted a dozen palo verde trees on the upper deck. Numerous California live oaks will soon be craned in to create a shady boulevard.
Of its exhibitions and events, Zuckerman said, “I want to broaden the range of content we’re presenting, with the idea that we want people to feel welcome here. Orange County is wedged between two cities—Los Angeles and San Diego. Orange County is one of the most diverse counties in California, made up of 34 cities. We’re a county, and as a county, we get to serve all those cities, all those communities, all that diversity.”
Her goal is to remove barriers to entry and create a cultural center where people of all kinds can rub elbows. To that end, general admission to the museum will be free for the first 10 years, thanks to a $2.5 million underwriting gift Zuckerman secured from Newport Beach-based Lugano Diamonds.
“Art doesn’t care how much money you have, who you voted for, what you do or don’t do on Sunday,” Zuckerman said.
Zuckerman’s new post comes with a bit of fence-mending among fellow Laguna residents. In 1996, a battle raged over control of the Laguna Art Museum when the Newport Harbor Art Museum, now OCMA, attempted what amounted to a hostile takeover of its assets. Many of the players in the drama of the unsuccessful bid have moved away or died. Shortly after she arrived and learned about this history, Zuckerman investigated and returned 200 artworks that belonged to LAM.
She is sanguine about the turbulent past and offers an invitation. “Come and check it out,” she said. “If you don’t like what you see, come back again, and it will be different.”
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