Recent cuts at OCMA not a retreat, head of museum’s trustees says

“Bad Dog,” a 28-foot sculpture by Richard Jackson at Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach.
“Bad Dog,” a 28-foot sculpture by Richard Jackson at Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach.
(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

The recent downsizing at the Orange County Museum of Art has left the Newport Beach institution without a chief curator and the art world stunned.

But in a telephone interview with The Times, Craig Wells, the president of the museum’s board of trustees, said the cutbacks did not signal a retreat.

OCMA has run operational deficits of anywhere from $792,000 to $1.04 million from fiscal years 2012 to 2014, but the strongest motivating factor for the staff reorganization is getting the museum ready to build a new home at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.


“It’s a big priority,” Wells said. “Our eyes are really focused on the potential move to Segerstrom.”

Since the 1980s, OCMA has been trying to construct a bigger museum — one capable of housing both temporary exhibitions and selections from the permanent collection.

“We’ve had very bold exhibitions over the years,” Wells said. “But we have to close between exhibitions. With a larger size, we could have items from the permanent collection on view and still install temporary exhibitions. We would never have to shut down.”

The Segerstrom Center plan goes back more than a decade, when the then-Orange County Performing Arts Center began exploring the idea of donating a plot of undeveloped land in its complex for the purpose of a museum.

In 2008, OCMA was given title to a 1.64-acre parcel on Avenue of the Arts — on the condition that it break ground within five years. Los Angeles architect Thom Mayne of Morphosis was hired to design the museum. But the skidding economy got in the way and the project was put on hold.

Now, with a June 2017 groundbreaking deadline approaching, if OCMA is to maintain title to the land, it must sell its Newport Beach building in the next three to six months, engage in some heated fundraising and likely relocate to temporary facilities.

The new building’s price tag is an estimated $50 million.

Already, said Wells, the museum has “friends and family” commitments for the construction, though he declined to specify amounts.

“Our expectation for the type of building that we envision is that the sale of the Fashion Island property, plus the existing pledges, could pay for the new building,” he said. “So, a campaign would be to enhance the endowment and provide additional operating funds. That then puts us in the position to expand.”

It’s a tight schedule. Already, a page on the OCMA website features images of the Mayne-designed building and information on how to support the campaign.

As part of a plan to make the move happen, OCMA laid off five employees, including chief curator Dan Cameron, as The Times first reported last week. Cameron is widely respected in international art circles. He has curated exhibitions at the Venice Biennale, served as a curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and launched the Prospect New Orleans biennial (now a triennial) in Louisiana.

Stepping into the curatorial role is Museum Director Todd DeShields Smith, who joined OCMA from the Tampa Museum of Art in Florida, where he had overseen construction of a $32-million facility. It was Smith who oversaw the layoffs.

Although Smith has degrees in art history from Duke University and Indiana University and served as curator at the Mint Museum in North Carolina in the 1990s, he has limited curatorial experience.

Over the last 15 years, his resume has leaned toward administration. At OCMA, his main area of focus before the layoffs had been getting the museum’s finances in order.

Which raises a couple of important questions: What will happen to the curatorial program of a museum with an international reputation and a history of presenting scholarly and adventurous shows of Modern and contemporary art? And could the museum be scuttling its artistic reputation for the sake of a “starchitect"-

designed building?

OCMA has been a small but potent institution — one whose tony suburban surroundings belie a history of challenging, scholarly and iconoclastic exhibitions.

The museum gave important first surveys to now esteemed artists such as painter Vija Celmins and conceptual artist Chris Burden. It has organized exhibitions of works by painters Lari Pittman and Richard Diebenkorn, sculptor Charles Ray, and painter and installation artist Richard Jackson, who two years ago planted a 28-foot sculpture of a urinating dog on the outside of the museum.

The museum has also been an important proving ground for curators — mostly famously, Paul Schimmel, who in his time at the museum organized exhibitions by key California artists as well as shows on Flemish painting and Abstract Expressionism.

Afterward, he went on to curate a slew of important exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and is now helming the launch of an L.A. branch of the Swiss gallery Hauser Wirth & Schimmel.

Wells emphasizes that the current situation is temporary.

“I would underscore the word ‘transition,’ he said. “It was a tough decision by management and the board ... Todd does not want to be curator. It’s not why he was hired ... But we had to make a tough decision to get through the next two to three years.”


Twitter: @cmonstah