An Agent of Change

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Orange County Museum of Art, formerly the Newport Harbor Art Museum, has weathered three crises: the abandonment of expansion plans due to recession in the early '90s, a controversial merger with the Laguna Art Museum in 1996 and 18 months without a curator since September 1999.

Those challenges have led the institution to refine and redefine itself. Today OCMA has a newly appointed head curator--Elizabeth Neilson Armstrong--and a new development director, along with a retooled mission statement, a bigger budget and plans to grow.

"The museum seems really focused," said Armstrong. Currently senior curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla, she starts her new job at OCMA, as deputy director of art, in April.

"OCMA is at an interesting, transitional time, and they've shown a strong interest in revitalizing their collection and invigorating their programs," she said.

She and two hires announced recently--development director John Crabtree-Ireland and education and public programs associate Jennifer Dework Katz--said they were attracted to the museum's commitment to grow.

"The museum is in an exciting building period and is poised strategically for great growth," Crabtree-Ireland, 30, said. "I'm looking forward to building stronger programs that can reach more people within the county."

The clouds seem to have parted for OCMA, but things weren't always so sunny.

The museum was dealt a heavy blow in 1999 when its chief curator, Bruce Guenther, unexpectedly resigned after eight years. OCMA launched an extensive, national search for a year and a half to replace Guenther, hiring a recruitment firm, advertising in trade magazines and paying travel and other expenses to court a short list of at least five potential candidates.

But while the curator search was on, other top-rank officials left; development director Joan Van Hooten, education director Maxine Gaiber and operations director Brian Gray resigned within six months of each other.

OCMA filled those posts within six months, while redoubling efforts to find a chief curator. It wasn't easy. Museum officials cited a tight, competitive labor market as a reason for the unusually long delay, and they turned inward, reexamining their mission statement.

It was too narrowly focused, explained OCMA director Naomi Vine. To attract the nation's most talented curators, OCMA removed its original emphasis on California art and "the Orange County community" to reflect a newer, broader vision based on "innovation" and "independent thinking."

"Although our mission was never intended to require an exclusive focus on California art, it typically has been interpreted that way," Vine said.

In its earlier incarnation, the museum in the '80s had earned national acclaim for its edgy, contemporary exhibitions organized by then-curator Paul Schimmel, who is now chief curator at MOCA. While the museum neither wants to abandon cutting-edge shows nor California art, Vine said, its scope should extend to works from around the world.

Armstrong has just the reputation.

"[She] has had a track record of bringing in important exhibitions, and her work attracts broad audiences," Vine said. Among Armstrong's well-regarded exhibitions are "Ultrabaroque: Aspects of Post-Latin American Art," which focused on recent work by 16 Latin American artists and is now touring nationally; and "In the Spirit of Fluxus," a survey of the 1960s art movement, which won the International Assn. of Art Critics Award in 1995.

The museum is open year-round and offers temporary and touring exhibitions at its 15,800-square-foot gallery space. Unique to Orange County, the museum keeps a continuous display of works from its 6,000-piece permanent collection--partially shared through a collections trust with the Laguna Art Museum--of California art from the late 19th century to the present.

But building that collection, the exhibition space and its special programs was at times a trial by fire.

In 1996, the Newport Harbor Art Museum merged with the nearby Laguna Art Museum in an attempt to save both venues from what they saw as impending insolvency. But very quickly the merger was met with lawsuits, acrimony and political maneuvering. The Laguna Art Museum broke off to operate independently. Still, merger-related disputes linger, particularly over $2 million in endowment funds.

But as the dust settled, OCMA emerged in good financial shape. Aggressive fund-raising brought its annual budget from $2.7 million in 1998 to $3.3 million in 2000. Its endowment, practically nonexistent at the time of the merger, has soared to $7 million.

OCMA began to flex its financial muscle. Its space on San Clemente Drive was small, but it acquired an adjacent, vacated library and in 1997 nearly doubled its size with a $1.8-million renovation.

The Museum Education Center, which occupies the library space, houses two art studios, a classroom, a 108-seat auditorium, storage and offices.

OCMA also began to develop a lengthy list of outreach programs aimed at first-time museum-goers, students and art collectors. It launched the popular "Tuesday Talks at Noon" presentations, began a monthly film series, and partnered with the UC Irvine Extension program to offer art history classes.

The education programs have more than doubled since the merger. OCMA serves 29 school districts in the county with classroom programs and museum tours.

And it wants to expand its audience even more. Although a majority of OCMA's 2,300 members live in Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, museum officials say they want to reach out to other parts of the county. They say they have made inroads with residents from South County, Tustin Hills, Cowan Heights and Santa Ana.

Now the museum is planning to physically expand as well. A decision to move to a larger site closer to central Orange County--part of a long-range plan to continue broadening the museum's reach--is overdue, they said.

"I'm so excited to finally be moving forward now that we have the right people in place," said OCMA board chairman Darrel Anderson. "The only next thing is to see the museum itself grow. So we'll move."

But museum officials, who have not yet formally announced a capital campaign or a move, will likely proceed with caution; grand plans to expand in the late '80s, when the museum was still known as the Newport Harbor Museum, fizzled. They were offered a 10 1/2-acre lot by Irvine Co. chairman Donald L. Bren. Internationally renowned, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano was hired. But the project was eventually scrapped and Piano fired. The museum cited problems with the blueprints and rising costs--the recession of the early '90s didn't help.

Still, trustees say relocation talks have been ongoing, with a price tag of $60 million and hopes of reaching a consensus on how to expand. One possibility involves becoming neighbors with the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

OCMA has been considering a move to a seven-acre site in Costa Mesa at Town Center Drive and Avenue of the Arts that would be part of the center's $200-million expansion project.

Other relocation sites are being eyed, one board member says.

"We'll probably end up as a Costa Mesa, Santa Ana or Irvine address. It depends on who has the land available for us," Anderson said. "Everything has a pace to it and, basically, it was too slow for me, but we're getting there.

"This has been a long and challenging search to find the right person for the OC community. In the larger context, I'm happy to have a lot of new faces at the museum," said Anderson. "The work continues."

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