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Inside Orange County's Indie Art Collections

Anton Segerstrom, general manager of the Crystal Court at South Coast Plaza, was surprised.

He recently let the director and chief curator of the Orange County Museum of Art peruse his personal fine art collection to select works for its "OC Collects" exhibition, which runs this year from Oct. 7 to Dec. 30.

"We have a lot of blue-chip pieces, but what they chose was really off the beaten path," said Segerstrom, sounding nonplussed after spending 27 years amassing art only to see the cornerstones of his collection passed over.

But when works by artists named Altoon, Berman, Heinecken, Kienholz and Warhol--each with as much one-name cachet as a Brazilian footballer--are considered off the beaten path, it makes you wonder: what else is hanging on the walls between La Habra and San Clemente?

It's this question OCMA Director Dennis Szakacs and Chief Curator Dan Cameron want to raise with the capstone showcase of the museum's 50th anniversary that thumbs its nose at the well-worn stereotype of Orange County as a cultural desert.

They do so by emphasizing the role of local collectors who have long championed modern and contemporary art but whose private galleries have remained until now largely unseen by the public.

After all, you can bet that where there's money, there's art. The challenge is getting a representative cross-slice of everything that's out there under one roof.

"The relationship between collections would have never had a bearing on your experience," said Cameron. "We're trying to give the public a sneak peek inside the fully realized private collections, with stimulating and interesting works, as if they were owned by a museum."

Shirin Neshat, <em>The Last Word</em>, 2003, Gelatin silver print, 38 x 95 inches (image), 40 x 97 inches (framed), Edition 3 of 5 Collection of Marsha and Darrel Anderson, ©Shirin Neshat | Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.
Shirin Neshat, The Last Word, 2003, Gelatin silver print, 38 x 95 inches (image), 40 x 97 inches (framed), Edition 3 of 5 Collection of Marsha and Darrel Anderson, ©Shirin Neshat | Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

"We're hoping to appeal to a local pride," he added, "as well as to a sense that we don't just have good collecting, we also have so many things that nobody else has."

There are reasons why Orange County deserves its reputation, but OCMA, born the Newport Harbor Art Museum in 1962 until its name change in 1996, is not one of them.

"Mass media stereotypes have overwhelmed reality," said Szakacs, "and the museum's history runs counter to that."

Exhibitions by Richard Diebenkorn, Ed Ruscha, Joe Goode and Robert Rauchenberg in the 1960s probably smelled of wet paint and stop bath.

Throughout the next several decades, works by Vija Celmins, Mark Rothko, Chris Burden, George Herms, Jasper Johns and Christo, among others, graced the museum, and OCMA's biennial has ushered numerous California artists from obscurity to the spotlight.

Despite the museum's credentials, the rest of the world has been hesitant to hear to the region's voice in the modern and contemporary art conversation.

Miriam Smith, a Newport Beach art appraiser and advisor, said that there are several well-established collectors in Orange County but that they lack a sense of community compared to other cities and cultural centers.

Smith's Art Resource Group gallery currently has on display its own locally-themed contemporary art show called "The View from Here: Orange County Perspectives."

"Over the years, a lot of people have gone out of the area to collect and have bought things and brought them back into the area," she said. "So I think that's why you don't hear too much about it--the scene isn't really that cohesive down here."

With "OC Collects," OCMA is hoping to give a unified front to the region's collectors.

"It's been exciting to work with the local collecting community to show how the art world has evolved in the 50 years since the museum's founding and how the collecting community in Orange County reflects that," said Szakacs.

Szakacs and Cameron spent four months selecting works from about two dozen collections that would help further the narrative of "OC Collects" rather than dazzle with flash.

That meant zeroing in on lesser-known pieces that captured pivotal moments in artists' careers--a "missing link in the evolution," as Cameron put it. He pointed to two works from "OC Collects" by Robert Irwin and John McLaughlin as examples.

In other cases, he and Szakacs wanted to find underrepresented artists who weren't getting enough credit for their works.

"We definitely tried to make sure the artist was amply recognized and that we didn't just include the top two percent of work we've ever seen," said Cameron. "We didn't want to get to a place where we said 'this is nice, but it has nothing to do with the show.'"

Diversity was another important factor in selecting art for "OC Collects." "50 years ago, the art world was not as much a global phenomenon as it is now," said Szakacs. "It was primarily a Western-white-male-dominated activity.

He pointed as evidence of that shift to Israeli Hila Ben Ari and Palestinian Emily Jacir, Brazilian Rosângela Rennó and South Africans Zwelethu Mthethwa and Robin Rhode, all artists who are showing works publicly in Orange County for the first time.

"Now you have advanced artistic ideas circulating the globe, with each place having its own local identity," Szakacs said. "A lot of local collectors have picked up on that, and we wanted to make sure that sea change was reflected.

Orange County might have a chip on its shoulder, but the rest of the world can't really be blamed for not noticing the region's legitimate fine art collections when the works are locked behind gated estates.

If anything, "OC Collects" lets Orange County flex its cultural muscle for the rest of the world to see and admire.

Or, as Cameron said of one of the aims behind the exhibition, "We want to provoke envy or jealousy."

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