Five staffers — including chief curator Dan Cameron — have been laid off from the Orange County Museum of Art in a restructuring under the museum’s new director and CEO Todd DeShields Smith.
“We sincerely thank these individuals for their service to the museum, particularly Dan, who made some significant contributions,” said Smith in a brief statement that was issued to The Times on Tuesday. "Most importantly, his re-launching of the California Biennial into the International California-Pacific Triennial that has helped to build a platform on which the museum is now extending our commitment to showing art from the Pacific Rim.”
This leaves the Newport Beach museum, an institution known for its vibrant exhibitions of modern and contemporary art, with a total of 14 full-time and part-time gallery staff — and no chief curator.
“Smith — with 25 years of curatorial experience — will oversee the curatorial program during the transition period,” stated a museum spokesperson via email, “and is actively reviewing parts of the curatorial calendar.”
Smith joined OCMA from the Tampa Museum of Art in Florida, where he served as director for six years. He has also led a number of other small American arts institutions, including the Gibbes Museum of Art in South Carolina and the Knoxville Museum of Art in Tennessee. In the 1990s, he was also a curator of American and contemporary art at the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, N.C.
But he is best known for his work at the Tampa Museum. There, he oversaw the construction of a new $32-million building on time and under budget — which may be why the OCMA board hired him.
For more than half a dozen years the museum has been plotting a move to a new home at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa — to a 140,000-square-foot building that is to be designed by Pritzker Prize-winning designer Thom Mayne of Morphosis Architects.
The plan, however, has never quite gotten off the ground, largely because the financial crisis of 2008 got in the way of fundraising. But Smith, it appears, wants to now make the new building and a move to Costa Mesa a priority.
In an interview with the Daily Pilot earlier this month, Smith touted the plan, describing Mayne’s proposed design as “spectacular.”
Likewise, a press release dated March 26, but issued to The Times on Tuesday afternoon, announced the staff and other restructuring changes under the headline: “OCMA Announces Transition Plan for Its Move to Costa Mesa."
Last July, the museum announced that it was enlisting the development firm Related California to sell and develop its Newport Beach site in preparation for an eventual move to Costa Mesa. The press release states that this agreement will be continued and that “the Museum continues working on potential sale of its current Museum property.”
But any construction is still likely a long way off. OCMA has not launched a capital campaign to cover building and relocation costs — which the museum estimates to be in the vicinity of $50 million.
Moreover, a review of OCMA’s 990 filings with the IRS show that in recent years the museum has been running operational deficits: $792,000 in fiscal year 2012, $824,000 in 2013 and $1.04 million last year.
As revenues remained relatively flat, budgets have steadily climbed. For fiscal year 2011, when the budgets were still in the black, expenses stood at $3.5 million. In 2012, they jumped to $4.8 million, and by 2013 they were $5.8 million — increases of 37% and 20%, respectively.
By fiscal year 2014, expenses crept back down again, to $4 million — but so did revenues, leaving the museum with a seven-figure deficit.
“Those increases are due to the museum’s decision to organize some large and important, although costly exhibitions that travelled nationally and internationally,” stated a spokesperson via email.
Whether OCMA ultimately moves to Costa Mesa will likely be determined by how much the museum can get for its Newport Beach facility, which sits on the outskirts of the tony Fashion Island mall.
That leaves a question mark hovering over the curatorial program. OCMA is known for regularly producing smart and daring shows — on subjects such as 20th century California abstractionist Richard Diebenkorn and iconoclastic installation artist Richard Jackson, who planted a massive sculpture of a urinating dog over the museum. Currently, there is a show devoted to the work of L.A.-born artist Fred Tomaselli, a painter known for touching on hallucinatory themes, and a group show that examines the legacy of the punk-feminist Riot Grrrl movement.
This summer, the museum will exhibit “My Generation: Young Chinese Artists,” a show that originated in 2013 at the Tampa Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in nearby St. Petersburg, Fla. Its focus is on artists born after the end of the Cultural Revolution.
Asia and Latin America appear to be a continuing focus for Smith. The transition press release states that later this year the museum will unveil a new gallery called “The Pacific Project,” which will showcase video art from around the Pacific Rim.
Cameron could not be reached for comment.
Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.