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An Agent of Change

As it begins to move past problems, the Orange County Museum of Art hires a head curator, whose mission is to energize the institution and lead expansion.

February 19, 2001|VIVIAN LETRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Orange County Museum of Art, formerly the Newport Harbor Art Museum, has weathered three crises: the abandonment of expansion plans due to recession in the early '90s, a controversial merger with the Laguna Art Museum in 1996 and 18 months without a curator since September 1999.

Those challenges have led the institution to refine and redefine itself. Today OCMA has a newly appointed head curator--Elizabeth Neilson Armstrong--and a new development director, along with a retooled mission statement, a bigger budget and plans to grow.

"The museum seems really focused," said Armstrong. Currently senior curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla, she starts her new job at OCMA, as deputy director of art, in April.

"OCMA is at an interesting, transitional time, and they've shown a strong interest in revitalizing their collection and invigorating their programs," she said.

She and two hires announced recently--development director John Crabtree-Ireland and education and public programs associate Jennifer Dework Katz--said they were attracted to the museum's commitment to grow.

"The museum is in an exciting building period and is poised strategically for great growth," Crabtree-Ireland, 30, said. "I'm looking forward to building stronger programs that can reach more people within the county."

The clouds seem to have parted for OCMA, but things weren't always so sunny.

The museum was dealt a heavy blow in 1999 when its chief curator, Bruce Guenther, unexpectedly resigned after eight years. OCMA launched an extensive, national search for a year and a half to replace Guenther, hiring a recruitment firm, advertising in trade magazines and paying travel and other expenses to court a short list of at least five potential candidates.

But while the curator search was on, other top-rank officials left; development director Joan Van Hooten, education director Maxine Gaiber and operations director Brian Gray resigned within six months of each other.

OCMA filled those posts within six months, while redoubling efforts to find a chief curator. It wasn't easy. Museum officials cited a tight, competitive labor market as a reason for the unusually long delay, and they turned inward, reexamining their mission statement.

It was too narrowly focused, explained OCMA director Naomi Vine. To attract the nation's most talented curators, OCMA removed its original emphasis on California art and "the Orange County community" to reflect a newer, broader vision based on "innovation" and "independent thinking."

"Although our mission was never intended to require an exclusive focus on California art, it typically has been interpreted that way," Vine said.

In its earlier incarnation, the museum in the '80s had earned national acclaim for its edgy, contemporary exhibitions organized by then-curator Paul Schimmel, who is now chief curator at MOCA. While the museum neither wants to abandon cutting-edge shows nor California art, Vine said, its scope should extend to works from around the world.

Armstrong has just the reputation.

"[She] has had a track record of bringing in important exhibitions, and her work attracts broad audiences," Vine said. Among Armstrong's well-regarded exhibitions are "Ultrabaroque: Aspects of Post-Latin American Art," which focused on recent work by 16 Latin American artists and is now touring nationally; and "In the Spirit of Fluxus," a survey of the 1960s art movement, which won the International Assn. of Art Critics Award in 1995.

The museum is open year-round and offers temporary and touring exhibitions at its 15,800-square-foot gallery space. Unique to Orange County, the museum keeps a continuous display of works from its 6,000-piece permanent collection--partially shared through a collections trust with the Laguna Art Museum--of California art from the late 19th century to the present.

But building that collection, the exhibition space and its special programs was at times a trial by fire.

In 1996, the Newport Harbor Art Museum merged with the nearby Laguna Art Museum in an attempt to save both venues from what they saw as impending insolvency. But very quickly the merger was met with lawsuits, acrimony and political maneuvering. The Laguna Art Museum broke off to operate independently. Still, merger-related disputes linger, particularly over $2 million in endowment funds.

But as the dust settled, OCMA emerged in good financial shape. Aggressive fund-raising brought its annual budget from $2.7 million in 1998 to $3.3 million in 2000. Its endowment, practically nonexistent at the time of the merger, has soared to $7 million.

OCMA began to flex its financial muscle. Its space on San Clemente Drive was small, but it acquired an adjacent, vacated library and in 1997 nearly doubled its size with a $1.8-million renovation.

The Museum Education Center, which occupies the library space, houses two art studios, a classroom, a 108-seat auditorium, storage and offices.

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