The Crowd: Art educators treated to private tour, dinner at OCMA

CEO and director of Orange County Museum of Art Heidi Zuckerman gives a tour of the recent Joan Brown exhibit.
(Rita Labib)

A recent gathering billed “An Evening of Excellence in Art Education” invited Orange County teachers, including many with careers in specific fields of the humanities including the visual arts, to gather at Orange County Museum of Art for an inaugural annual private tour, dinner and conversation with Heidi Zuckerman, the museum’s chief executive and director.

The memorable night, created and led by OCMA board member Lauren Chalmers, who also underwrote the event with husband Trace Chalmers, honored educators who provide local students with art education.

Many attending shared concern over the lessening importance of art education in public schools focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curriculum in this 21st-century age of rapid technical advancement dominating education. To this point, Zuckerman is set to release her latest book this month, “Why Art Matters … The Bearable Lightness Of Being.”

David Emmes, Lauren Chalmers, John Gunnin, Nick Anas and Heidi Zuckerman.
David Emmes, Lauren Chalmers, John Gunnin, Nick Anas and Heidi Zuckerman attend a special OCMA dinner honoring Orange County educators in art.
(Rita Labib)

In a private moment Zuckerman shared, “I am most proud of this book, which is a collection of ideas and experiences written in pieces mostly during the pandemic. It is personal, a survival memoir finding solace in relatable art as a life-enhancing companion of import.”


Zuckerman, a powerhouse, has been at the helm of OCMA for some 3½ years. She led the museum into its opening in October 2022, at the front of a campaign raising in excess of $50 million. Coming to Orange County with previous positions as the director and chief curator of Aspen Art Museum, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, and most recently the Jewish Museum, New York City, Zuckerman, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, brings to OCMA an impressive and wide-ranging resume of exhibitions focused on contemporary art.

On the special night at OCMA (which, by the way, is open to all with no admission fee, thanks to donor sponsorship), Zuckerman greeted the arriving educators into the expansive open steel-and-glass framed foyer on the second floor of the museum. Her guests, shoulder to shoulder, followed their leader into the main gallery for a curated tour of the Joan Brown exhibition (recently closed as of this publication date).

Educator John Gunnin is presented with the first annual “Art Educator” honor with David Emmes.
Educator John Gunnin is presented with the first annual “Art Educator” honor with David Emmes, president of the OCMA Board.
(Rita Labib)

The erudite tour guide who wrote her undergraduate thesis at Penn on the history of punk subculture in the U.K., was the ideal expert to tour the curious through the exhibition of massive paintings by the late San Francisco-based artist Joan Brown. Enormous depictions of her life on canvas screamed out the curious as Zuckerman explained that most men portrayed in many of the works were only outlines, not actual bodies of the subjects, reflecting Brown’s personal relationships. Only one giant work depicted a full portrait of her final husband (the last of many, and half her age).

The crowd stopped momentarily in front of yet another giant canvas. Brown painted a ceiling fan at the very top of the piece with nothing else beneath it. And the fan goes round and round and nothing changes. Could it be a metaphor of life?

That is what contemporary art is about. It speaks differently to each person viewing the work. The crowd was silent, pondering, and moving on.

The Joan Brown exhibition is one of more than 200 museum shows Zuckerman has curated in her career. At 56, the Laguna Beach resident, engaged to be married for a second time later this summer, shares that her fiance will not be an “outline figure” in her own artful life. She is the mother of two adult children.

At the conclusion of the Joan Brown walking tour, dinner was served in the museum dining room catered by Chef Nick Weber of MixMix, South Coast Plaza. Educators sharing repast and conversation were Fay Wyles, art and painting teacher from Tarbut V Torah Community Day School, Irvine; Heather Hanson, AP art history teacher from Laguna Beach High School; Courtney Zarrilli, ceramics teacher from Harbor Day School, Newport Beach; Leslie Yager, art department chair, also from Harbor Day and Stacie Wendland, who specializes in visual arts design and STEM, from Eastbluff Elementary, Newport Beach.

Over table talk, Wendland revealed she supervises a group of children at her school who are refugees from Ukraine, speaking little to no English. They’re all living with family placed in local apartment housing and adjusting to life in the U.S. while attending a small suburban neighborhood school. An amazing story for another column on the “art of living.”

Rich Meyer of JSerra Catholic High, Tony Roberts, vice president of school relations, with OCMA's Lauren Chalmers.
Rich Meyer, president of JSerra Catholic High School and Tony Roberts, vice president of school relations at JSerra High School, with OCMA board member Lauren Chalmers, creator of “An Evening of Excellence in Art Education.”
(Rita Labib)

The dinner celebration found its focus in honoring all the local educators with specific accolades bestowed upon John Gunnin, receiving the first ever Art Education Award recognizing his lifelong role in Orange County art education.

Gunnin, who is also on the board of OCMA, “has played an important role in shifting Eurocentric art curriculum to a World perspective, and has published extensively on contemporary art,” stated Emma Jacobson-Sive, representing the museum. Congratulating Gunnin and thanking all of the educators present were OCMA Board President David Emmes, with board members Allison Hoeven, Phil Bond and Michael Marcus front and center. Also on hand for the honor was Nick Anas, chief of staff for Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley.

A standing ovation for Gunnin was joined by Tony Roberts from JSerra Catholic High School; Monica Monqueen, chair of the fine arts department at CSU Long Beach; Erika Perales, visual arts teacher, Irvine High School; Ivette Hermann, visual arts, the Pegasus School, Huntington Beach, and Adrian Lopez, art teacher, Ocean View High School, Huntington Beach, among many others.

“Orange County Museum of Art has a unique and diverse education program that brings artists and audiences of all ages together to exchange ideas, share creative experiences and explore the art in its galleries. Last year OCMA welcomed more than 3,000 students, 85% from title 1 schools. The Art Educator Awards will become an annual event, celebrating art educators and their impact,” Jacobson-Sive said.

To learn more about OCMA, visit