Deputy director of art and chief curator Elizabeth Neilson Armstrong knew when she started last April at the Orange County Museum of Art that it was in a transitional stage with a recently redefined mission and an ongoing search for a new location.
She just didn't realize she would be temporarily in charge of monitoring all the changes. But the death of the museum's founding director, Naomi Vine, in December meant that Armstrong had to step in as acting director.
"We are stretching Liz a bit right now," said Charles Martin, chairman emeritus of the museum's board, adding that a search for a permanent director will begin in the next few months.
The director's role probably will change, he said.
Top candidates may not be required to have a strong background in both art history and management, as Vine had, which would set a precedent for the museum. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art had a similar restructuring of its director's post in 1999, when Andrea L. Rich, an administrator with no formal art training, was hired. Martin contends that an art background may no longer be necessary in the lead administrative post with Armstrong and a solid curatorial team in place.
Armstrong stepped in as chief curator after the position had been vacant for 18 months. Since last April, she and her curators have worked to reinvigorate the museum's artistic programming.
The curators are keeping a mix of contemporary works and historical California art throughout the museum.
New programs will complement three annual major temporary exhibitions, which are still being planned. One of the temporary exhibitions will be focused on historical California art drawn from the permanent collection.
Among the new programs, curator of contemporary art Irene E. Hofmann will launch an installation series, and collections curator Sarah Vure will present a program that highlights works by American artists.
Armstrong has reassembled the permanent collection. She waited a few months before leaving her first imprint on the collection. "I wanted an opportunity to know the collection," she said. "Since it hadn't been reinstalled in several years, I felt it needed a fresh look."
The reinstallation, completed last year, juxtaposes historical works with contemporary art. Instead of grouping them in chronological order, they are presented by theme: "California Color and Light," "American Realism, Assemblage and Pop," "Modernism, Minimalism and the Postmodern" and "Performance and the Body."
Armstrong has also decided to change the "Overview" gallery, an elongated rectangular room at the entrance of the permanent collection that used to offer displays of works by California Impressionists. Now it has a variety of artistic styles.
By spring, Armstrong hopes to have an indoor cafe-style study area set in the Overview gallery. Furnished with a coffee table and comfy couch, the small nook will allow visitors to sip java, watch a video by an artist or delve into books or the Internet to learn more about the artist's process and source materials.
Works from the permanent collection will be rotated in every two months for visitors to interact with or examine more closely. "It's a different way to access art so that it's more engaging," Armstrong said.
The first major temporary exhibition under Armstrong's tenure, organized with Hofmann, will go up in June. The museum's Biennial will showcase a dozen California artists with diverse ethnic backgrounds, among them Stephanie Syjuco and Roman de Salvo, who were invited to create site-specific installations. Syjuco looks at the issues of security and video surveillance technology, and De Salvo will customize large-scale balloons to look like boulders floating above the museum, drawing attention to the site. The contemporary works--painting, photography, sculpture, installation, video and Web-based videos--will touch on issues of immigration, environment and identity.
"It's the first public indication of some of our interests as curators," said Hofmann, who started in October and is especially interested in works on video and artists with global perspectives.
A traveling exhibition by Hofmann, a video installation by Spanish-born artist Inigo Manglano-Ovalle prepared for the Cranbrook Art Museum in Michigan, will stop at the Newport Beach museum next year.
This year Hofmann will also inaugurate an installation series that invites emerging and international contemporary artists to create site-specific works. Each installation will have an interactive multimedia component and will be exhibited for up to four months--three a year--in what is now the screening room gallery.
"I want it to be an experimental gallery for artists who have made strong works in the past but are not necessarily established in California or in this country," Hofmann said. "For many it'll be their first museum show. So there won't be much name recognition with these installations, but there's always something new and exciting to see each time you visit."
Vure, who joined the museum in May 1998, specializes in early 20th century American and European art, works most closely with the museum's permanent collection. Known for her scholarly, in-depth approach to exhibitions such as 2000's "Circles of Influence: Impressionism to Modernism in Southern California Art, 1910-1930," which Times art critic Christopher Knight called "a sumptuous feast," Vure wants to place California artists in the larger context of American art.
For her new series on American artists and for major exhibitions, she will gather works from the museum's collection of early and mid-20th century pieces, including plein-air landscapes, Modernist paintings and photography. California's large contingent of immigrant artists from around the world is another subject ripe for exploration, Vure said.
"Artists of different ethnic backgrounds who were working in California may not have been as well known as their Anglo counterparts," she said.
Vure said she will augment the museum's collection with works on loan from other public and private collections locally and nationally.
With a team of three in-house curators in place, board members say the museum is prepared for its next growth phase. "It will be four to five years before OCMA will be in a new location," Martin said. "You don't just wait until you get there."