Heidi Zuckerman leads Orange County Museum of Art toward the October 2022 opening of California’s most important new museum
Since Heidi Zuckerman joined Orange County Museum of Art as CEO and director seven months ago, she has energized the Southern California art and culture community, Zuckerman previously served as CEO and director of the Aspen Art Museum, leading its transformation into a world-class institution, while raising $85 million to design, build, and endow an architecturally significant new museum. In OC, she’s already secured some $15 million in new investment for OCMA, recruited new donors and board members, and validated the long-term vision of the museum’s most stalwart supporters. “My perspective is a transformational culture,” Zuckerman says. “My way is a culture of yes.”
Blue Door Magazine: OCMA was founded by 13 women at Balboa Pavilion in 1962. Does that history inspire you?
Heidi Zuckerman: It does. The show that I’m curating for the opening of the new museum in 2022 will feature 13 female artists from our collection honoring the 13 female founders of the museum. The artists will rotate in and out for an entire year.
BDM: The other opening exhibition is a reprise of the influential California Biennial, with former OCMA chief curator Liz Armstrong as one of its three curators. She is known for innovative and popular OCMA exhibitions like “Birth of the Cool” and “Girls Night Out.” Talk about that connection.
HZ: The first exhibition that I installed when I came to the Aspen Art Museum was the “Girls Night Out” show. I’m really interested in an expanded idea of what art is, and so the choice to invite Ms. Armstrong back was very systematic, because she has a really expanded view of art. I’m really excited about building a museum for the 21st Century, and a space that is really inclusive. Inclusive about what art means, the experiences we can have, while bringing people together who might not previously had an opportunity to connect and interact.
BDM: On the subject of inclusion, can you speak to plans to add art to the permanent collection?
HZ: OCMA had not made an acquisition in at least six years before I got here, and we’ve already made two. One is a commission by an artist named Sarah Cain, and it’s on view in our lobby area. The other is a work by a 24-year-old artist from Atlanta named Osaze Akil Stigler. It is a portrait of two incredibly beautiful Black women, and holds a unique place in our collection.
BDM: So you are committed to diversity in the collection and exhibitions?
HZ: Yes. In Aspen, I had more solo shows of female artists and artists of color than any non-ethnically specific museum in the country. I never hung a flag outside that said all the shows are by women right now, though sometimes they were. OCMA will show the most interesting work that’s being made in the world. And it’s often by female artists and artists of color.
BDM: How will you connect the new museum to the community?
HZ: Part of my philosophy is to remove as many barriers of entry as possible. To have admission free or affordable, give free lunch to all the kids that come to the museum for field trips, have bilingual programs, and to really just make people feel welcome. If you address people’s creature comforts, like somewhere to eat and to sit down, it makes people more open to the experiences of art. I like to say that art is not for everyone, but it can be for anyone. I straight up proselytize that art is essential for the good of society.
BDM: You’ve already raised a lot of money. How?
HZ: It’s really about personal relationships, and it’s about articulating a vision that people are excited about. The Aspen connection is helpful for people who have experienced what I had done before. I’ve had people who live in Orange County but have visited the Aspen Art Museum reach out to me, and say, “I love what you did. We’d love to get involved here.” And so, I’m standing on the shoulders of many generations of people who worked really hard to get us where we are. When you run a not-for-profit, you’re existing based on the generosity of others. I’m incredibly fiscally conservative, and our donors are basically our investors. People want to put their money somewhere that they know they’re going to be proud, and they know it’s going to be a great return on their investment.
BDM: OC admires business-centric venture philanthropy.
HZ: Part of my job and what you can always count on me to do is to make you look good. Anyone who supports OCMA, anyone who has a leadership role, volunteers, or works here—everyone will be proud of being part of this project and of the museum.
BDM: Have you found the Orange County arts world competitive, with everyone courting the same donors?
HZ: I was asked a similar question about whether there’s a limited amount of philanthropic dollars here. I don’t think so at all, because I have an abundance mindset and that’s how I do things. One example is when I got here, I heard about the prior merger with Laguna Art Museum, and one of the first things that I did was to work with our acquisition committee for the approval to return 200 objects that belong to Laguna Art Museum that we had held onto. And so, we’re doing that.
BDM: So, why come to Orange County?
HZ: There have always been a lot of points of connection to Orange County for me, and I think they all came to sort of an “a-ha” moment for me. Kevin Consey was my boss when I was at the UC Berkeley Art Museum, and I always knew about the time that he had spent at the Newport Harbor Museum.
BDM: Consey and curator Paul Schimmel led the museum in the 1980s, a period of creativity, innovation, and institutional growth.
HZ: Yes. I know Paul, and have always been inspired by his curatorship and the history that he has here. Paul reached out to welcome me when I was appointed, and said, “Now you can finish what Kevin and I started 32 years ago.”
BDM: What does that mean to you?
HZ: I think it means building a permanent, sustainable home for modern and contemporary art in Orange County.