OCMA recognizes artist Kori Newkirk and gives insight on the museum’s future

Jen Kim and her son Paxton, 3, look at art  at the Orange County Museum of Art.
Jen Kim and her son, Paxton, 3, peruse the exhibit “An Earth Song, a Body Song” at the Orange County Museum of Art on Sept. 24.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

A reopening. A virtual gala. A nationwide search for a director. A new building.

After months of vacant galleries and virtual programming, Orange County Museum of Art’s fall calendar is filling out, and its 2021 plans are starting to take shape.

The museum reopened its doors once again on Sept. 12 after Orange County moved from the purple tier to the red tier in the state’s coronavirus guidelines. In the red tier, businesses like restaurants and places of worship can resume indoor operations at 25% or 100 people.

Sarah Jesse, the museum’s interim director and CEO, said the team has put a lot of measures in place to create a safe environment such as plexiglass barriers at the front desk, limiting attendance, requiring face masks, contactless hand-sanitizer dispensers, visual social-distancing reminders and a daily cleaning schedule. The pool of frontline staff who were furloughed since the museum closed in March have the option of working again.

Artist Kori Newkirk will be honored at OCMA's virtual gala.
Artist Kori Newkirk will be honored at OCMA’s virtual gala.
(Sharon Suh)

Inside, visitors can find the work of Kori Newkirk on display in the exhibit “An Earth Song, a Body Song: Figures with Landscape from the OCMA Permanent Collection.”

Newkirk will also be the honored artist in the museum’s gala on Oct. 3. The event will be held virtually with live and prerecorded elements. Attendees will see a tour of the construction site of the new building at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, exhibitions at the current OCMA space in Santa Ana and the Los Angeles studios of Newkirk and Kyungmi Shin.

“I am so honored and flattered that they even thought to ask me. We started this back in December or January. So it’s been a long time and an interesting journey as we have worked together to figure out how to have a gala at such an intense and crazy time,” Newkirk said.

Jesse called Newkirk’s work a “favorite” at the museum.

Although Newkirk is from the Bronx, he has lived in Southern California since the ‘90s when he attended grad school at UC Irvine.

His first interaction at OCMA was as a viewer and in 2004 the museum acquired some of the beaded curtain work that he is most identified with — long strands of synthetic hair strung with decorative pony beads, often used in braided hairstyles.


A piece called Hutch, 2004 by Kori Newkirk
A piece called Hutch, 2004 by Kori Newkirk is part of an exhibit called “An Earth Song, a Body Song” at the Orange County Museum of Art on Thursday, Sept. 24.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

He’s said, in the past, that coverage of Venus Williams in 1997 at the U.S. Open and Stevie Wonder’s hair in the ‘70s were inspirations for the beaded work.

Over the last 15 years, his pieces have been included in six exhibitions by six different curators at the museum.

“Our curators are really drawn to his work. Our audiences are really drawn to his work,” Jesse said. “I think because people really respond to the fact that he’s able to have this rich conceptual idea — a social commentary, but on the surface you have this really beautiful work.”

The museum commissioned a sculpture edition from Newkirk that will be raffled off during the gala — Pink Pearl eraser hair clippers.

“I like the idea that the hair clippers erase my hair when they’re used or anybody’s hair,” Newkirk said. “Hair, being in some way, markers of identity and the same way that perhaps handwriting can operate with the function of the eraser. So that marriage of these two utilitarian objects just seemed perfect.”

Other items guests will automatically be entered to win include artwork by John Baldessari and Robert Rauschenberg, a Gucci handbag, luxury hotel stays and a private harbor cruise. Proceeds from the event will go toward future exhibitions and education programs at the museum. Last year’s event recognized artist Larry Bell and raised $610,000.

The Orange County Museum of Art reopened to the public mid-September.
The Orange County Museum of Art reopened to the public mid-September.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Three days after the gala, OCMA will hold a virtual topping-out ceremony live on Instagram commemorating the placement of the final structural beam in the new building designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne and his firm Morphosis.

The construction for the $73-million, 53,000-square-foot structure continued throughout the state quarantine period and is set to open in late 2021.

In July, Todd DeShields Smith, left his director and CEO role to become executive director of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in North Carolina. Smith was in charge of overseeing the OCMA’s new building and there is pressure to move quickly in a search for a new director because it’s a pivotal moment for the museum.

A piece by Maryrose Cobarrubias Mendoza is on exhibit at the Orange County Museum of Art.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

When asked what OCMA is looking for in a director, Jesse said they “will need to continue the momentum that we’ve had in terms of growing and expanding our audience. That has been the most important priority for us because we really want to let people know what a community asset the museum is. So we’ve used our time at OCMAExpand in our temporary space to really show and demonstrate to people what a valuable resource we are to their daily lives. We want to continue that momentum of growing and diversifying our audience.”

The museum moved from Newport Beach to its current temporary space in Santa Ana. Jesse said being centrally located in O.C. allowed the museum to serve the entire county, and they began seeing people from all 34 cities visit OCMA.

“The role of these institutions — even though they can be problematic, they still have important roles to play in our communities. I just hope people can still remember that and can see the importance of it,” Newkirk said. “It’s so amazing that they’re getting a new building, and I liked the idea of being able to be a part of the next phase of their growth, and that’s super interesting and important to me to be able to play a role — whatever way I can do that.”

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