Never again will the curator of the Orange County Museum of Art enjoy such a blank canvas to work with – Orange County Register

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 walls of the 53,000-square-foot museum take shape, its new chief curator, Courtenay Finn, chooses what will fill that blank canvas so that future visitors experience something vibrant or unexpected or thought-provoking, perhaps even before they enter in the building.

Twice the size of OCMA’s old home in Newport Beach, the new building gives Finn a variety of indoor and outdoor galleries, terraces and plazas of varying size 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 himself with the building. She sifts through the database of about 5,000 works in OCMA’s collection and tries to spend one day a week in the art storage vaults, pulling out works by artists she doesn’t know either, “trying to think beyond the greatest hits from the collection.”

And sometimes, when museum staff move other artworks to get to the piece they want to see, something unexpected is revealed.

“Like the same thing happens when you go to the library and pull a book out of the stack, sometimes what’s around it influences you,” Finn said.

Curating a museum can also feel like a game. Finn said they use foam core models of the OCMA galleries and scale replicas of works they’re considering — like an adult dollhouse or a Lego set.

And sometimes 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 painter Alice Aycock that the museum had never shown publicly.

Created in the 1980s, the large-scale installation is an apparatus of wood and wires that evokes a machine with an unknown function.

But it was stored disassembled. Museum officials searched their files for information about the piece, but found no instructions.

So someone called the 75-year-old artist on the phone, and when OCMA’s temporary home at South Coast Plaza Village closes in 2021, they used the space to “figure out like 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 previously worked with Zuckerman at the Aspen Museum of Art, where they are also slated 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 creative artist. But she kept finding herself in other people’s studios, talking and writing about their work and organizing shows.

“It became quite obvious that I was much more interested in what other people were doing,” she said, so she shifted her focus to curating.

Finn’s niche is living artists, not dead ones, and she tries to get to know them as people and then share those insights with museum audiences.

“It’s really important to me to remember that artists are human beings — they have families, they watch Law & Order, they go to the grocery store,” she said.

Her approach to curation is dynamic and interactive. Finn takes artists to the new museum to inspire them on how they might use the space.

She wants to change exhibits and displays frequently so there’s something new to see regularly—and since OCMA’s neighbors are the concert hall, two theaters and the opera house that make up the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, Finn will work with her colleagues there to fashion programs that complement each other.

“The opportunity will really be to create new avenues of collaboration, and I think that’s really exciting for the community,” said Anton Segerström, whose family’s philanthropy helped create the center; he is 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 educational programs for youth and the community, they can organize performances and exhibitions tied to common themes, and they will trade each other with patrons, so that when someone comes to the center, “they enjoy to a full day of art in Orange County,” Reitz said.

Upcoming attraction

With its public unveiling just months away, OCMA plans to mark the event with its own full day of the arts, which Zuckerman hopes will make visitors feel welcome, appreciated, joyful and inspired.

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 demonstrating “how this is a place where we we want people to come and bring other people and hang out,” Finn said.

This variety of experiences reflects what Finn wants OCMA to be known for long after the festivities are over. 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 that people typically think of as fine art, Finn said he wants to celebrate all types of creative work – including design, crafts, fashion and music – by artists at various stages of their career.

What she’s really trying to do is make the museum experience less stifling—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.”

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