OCMA retooling its California Biennial

Next month, Dan Cameron — the new chief curator at the Orange County Museum of Art — will board a flight to Europe, where he hopes to gather ideas from some of the world's most innovative international art exhibitions.

"I'm going abroad in June to see what a few of my friends and colleagues have done with the international platform," he said in an interview. "We'll see what I can poach."

What he captures, he'll bring back to OCMA in preparation for the museum's first international contemporary art survey, the 2013 California-Pacific Triennial.

The new exhibition will replace the Newport Beach museum's long-running California Biennial program, and will be the first of its kind on the West Coast, OCMA officials said. The triennial will showcase contemporary artists from the Golden State as well as from Latin America and the Pacific Rim.

Last fall the museum hired Cameron, a spry 55-year-old native New Yorker, to help re-tool its California Biennial. Once every two years, this regional exhibit had showcased the work of California contemporary artists. Since 1984, OCMA had presented the work of more than 248 artists from across the state.

But, as Cameron explained it, even tradition can lose its bearings if it doesn't stay current, so it's time to change the program's scope.

"One of the things I mentioned at the time of my interview for this job was that it would be much more interesting to show California art in a broader geographical context," he said. "To me, the state's boundaries seem a little bit arbitrary in the midst of globalized cultural exchanges."

He would know. Chapman has more than 20 years of experience organizing international biennials, including the Istanbul and Taipei Biennials and Prospect New Orleans, which he produced post-Hurricane Katrina through his non-profit, U.S. Biennial.

"Expanding the California Biennial to an international base is not just a natural progression," he added. "I think it's how California artists want to be seen now ... they see themselves as part of an international network."

Cameron also noted that extending the time frame from two to three years would give the museum enough time to organize and raise money such a large-scale event. His field research and international travel, where he will continue to draw on his well-established network of artists and funding sources, concludes in September.

The triennial, which will run at OCMA from June 30 to Sept. 22, 2013, comprise what Cameron described as a "Pacific Rim 21st century hodgepodge of media," including paintings, sculpture, photography, digital media and site-specific installations, "where the physical form of the museum will become part of the artist's toolbox."

Participating artists will be announced early next year.

OCMA Director Dennis Szakacs, another former New Yorker who worked with Cameron for six years on the East Coast, noted the biennial's role in documenting contemporary Californian art over the last three decades. Working at OCMA for the past nine years, Szakacs is the longest serving director on record there.

"When it began, the biennial was the only exhibition that was taking the pulse of what artists in California were doing," Szakacs said. "As we put more resources and energy into it, it really became a bellwether not just for Southern California, but for the entire West Coast, the U.S. and internationally. I'm really looking forward to where Cameron takes this."

Both Cameron and Szakacs contend that the international platform will increase interest and attendance for the museum, as well as open OCMA up to new and greater sources of funding, though, they emphasized, this wasn't an issue for biennials past.

According to Szakacs, foreign governments, private foundations and corporate underwriters should find the variety and international scope of the triennial worth sponsoring.

Even though California artists will comprise only about a third of the triennial's exhibitors, members of the local art community were excited by the change in scope and expressed their support for Cameron.

"The progression makes perfect sense to me," said Daniel Joseph Martinez, a 2008 California Biennial artist.

"Honestly, I don't know why we haven't done that yet," he continued. "Viewing the larger geopolitical picture of contemporary art, I don't think you can look at California without also looking at the Pacific Rim. New York and Europe are so far from us, so instead of trying to emulate the conversation that already exists there, this will provoke the opening of a rigorous conversation in the other direction."

Tony DeLap, a prominent Corona del Mar sculptor known for his 1960s minimalism and Op Art, was also looking forward to the triennial.

"Orange County was very fortunate in 2011 to have first-rate exhibitions of California Art at both the Orange County and Laguna Beach museums, as part of the Getty's Pacific Standard Time," he said in an e-mail. "To have a major survey of international art in 2013 seems like a brilliant follow-up idea."

Edgar Arceneaux — another 2008 California Biennial artist whose work is currently on display at the Los Angeles-based Susanne Vielmetter gallery — spoke to Cameron's abilities and reputation.

"Dan Cameron and I have traveled in similar circles for years," he said. "I think he's a great and necessary energy to have in California. He's had enormous success in getting the New Orleans biennial off the ground and I know he's going to breathe some fresh life into OCMA and the L.A. arts scene."

That said, Cameron is taking on the creative task with a dose of realism.

"It's inevitable that I will cross paths with someone who thinks this is a terrible idea," he said in closing, "but you don't sit around trying to invent new and important creative things without also running that risk."

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