Courtenay Finn, chief curator, is pictured outside the new Orange County Museum of Art, still under construction, at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa on Tuesday, May 10, 2022. The new OCMA is scheduled to open in October 8, 2022. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
The massive new Orange County Museum of Art under construction is still largely a blank canvas – but it won’t be when it opens in about four months.
As the 53,000-square-foot museum’s walls take shape, its new chief curator, Courtenay Finn, is choosing what will fill that blank canvas so future visitors experience something vibrant or unexpected or thought-provoking, perhaps even before they enter the building.
At twice the size of OCMA’s old Newport Beach home, the new building gives Finn a variety of indoor and outdoor galleries, terraces and plazas of different sizes and character to play with. Deciding how to furnish all those empty spaces can be a process of diligence, but also of discovery.
Finn regularly visits the construction site to familiarize herself with the building. She browses the database of the roughly 5,000 works in OCMA’s collection, and she tries to spend one day a week in the art storage vaults, pulling out pieces by artists she doesn’t know as well, “trying to think beyond the sort of greatest hits of the collection.
And sometimes, when museum staff are moving other art pieces to get to the work she wants to see, something unexpected is revealed.
“It’s kind of the same thing that happens when you go to the library and pull a book off the stack, sometimes what is around it influences you,” Finn said.
Curating a museum can also seem like play. Finn said they use foam core models of OCMA’s galleries and scaled-down replicas of works they’re considering – like a grownup dollhouse or Lego set.
And occasionally, it’s like assembling furniture from IKEA.
OCMA Director Heidi Zuckerman said she was thrilled to learn the collection included a “monumental” work by sculptor and artist Alice Aycock that the museum has never publicly shown.
Created in the 1980s, the large-scale installation is an apparatus of wood and wires that evokes a machine of unknown function.
But it was stored disassembled. Museum staff combed their files for information on the piece, but they didn’t find any instructions.
So someone got the 75-year-old artist on the phone, and when OCMA’s temporary home at South Coast Plaza Village closed in 2021, they used the space to “figure out as a puzzle how to put this work together, Zuckerman said.
Inspiration and collaboration
Finn, 40, is new to Southern California but a veteran of the art scene in several other states. She’d previously worked with Zuckerman at the Aspen Art Museum, where they also got to help open a new building.
With a background in printmaking and textiles, Finn studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art with the intention of being a creator. But she kept finding herself in other people’s studios, talking and writing about their work and organizing shows.
“It became quite apparent that I was much more interested in what other people were doing, she said, so she shifted her focus to curation.
Finn’s niche is living artists rather than dead ones, and she tries to get to know them as people and then share those insights with a museum audience.
“It’s really important to me to remember that artists are human beings – they have families, they watch ‘Law and Order,’ they go to the grocery store,” she said.
Her approach to curation is dynamic and interactive. Finn brings artists into the new museum to inspire them on how they could use the space.
She wants to frequently change shows and exhibitions so there’s regularly something new to see – and as OCMA’s neighbors are the concert hall, two theaters and opera house that make up the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, Finn will work with her counterparts there to fashion programs that complement each other.
“The opportunity’s really going to be to create new avenues of collaboration, and I think that’s really exciting for the community,” said Anton Segerstrom, whose family’s philanthropy helped establish the center; he’s also on the museum’s board of trustees.
Or as Segerstrom Center President Casey Reitz put it, the addition of OCMA “completes the campus.”
The museum and performing arts venues will work together on education programs for youth and the community, they may put on shows and exhibitions tied together by common themes, and they’ll market to each other’s patrons so when someone comes to the center, “they’re enjoying a full day of arts in Orange County,” Reitz said.
With its public unveiling just months away, OCMA is planning to commemorate the occasion with its own full day of arts that Zuckerman hopes will make visitors feel welcomed, appreciated, joyful and inspired.
The opening day will be a 24-hour event, with live music, food, a yoga class, art-making activities, late-night movies and, of course, tours of the new museum – all showcasing “how it’s a place where we want people to come and bring other people and hang out,” Finn said.
That diversity of experiences reflects what Finn wants OCMA to be known for long after the festivities end. And, thanks to a $2.5 million gift announced last fall, the museum plans to offer free admission for the next 10 years.
While visitors can expect to find paintings, sculptures and other mediums people commonly think of as fine art, Finn said she wants to celebrate all kinds of creative work – including design, crafts, fashion and music – from artists at all different stages of their careers.
What she’s really trying to do is make the museum experience less stuffy – not so much dictating to people what “art” is, but more encouraging them to ask questions and explore ideas, even when they’re confusing or frustrating.
A more traditional museum might see its role as imparting knowledge to visitors, Finn said, but at OCMA “we’re coming from a place where we’re really excited and we care about it and we want to share it with you.”