Artist Chris Burden was there in the 1970s working as a preparator. His 1981 installation, “Tale of Two Cities,” featuring 5,000 war toys on an enormous sand base, addressed the absurdity of war. Paul Schimmel, today a partner at the L.A. gallery Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, was this museum’s chief curator in the 1980s. Through their efforts, Burden and Schimmel helped put this venue onto the contemporary art world radar. They are among many artists and curators who exhibited and worked over the years at the Newport Beach-based Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) — formerly, the Balboa Pavilion Gallery and later the Newport Harbor Art Museum (NHAM) — helping to propel it to world-class status.
OCMA was from its modest beginnings an anomaly in conservative Orange County. It was started by 13 innovative women, who learned to become gallery managers, curators and preparators, and even helped remodel the Balboa Pavilion Gallery’s first 8,000-square-foot site. As the second contemporary art museum in Southern California, it opened its doors in 1962 — 17 years before L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). How this regional museum has thrived is a story of foresight, hard work and the mounting of forward-looking exhibitions.
In 1961, the turn-of-the-century Balboa Pavilion on Newport’s Balboa Peninsula was sold to Ducommun Realty Company. In explaining how the institution came to be, Betty Winckler, the museum’s founding president, told a publication: “I called Mr. Ducommon at his home... at 7’oclock in the morning and I guess he couldn’t believe what he heard — some women he didn’t know wanted to use his building for their art museum, for free. The building was in pretty flaky condition… We agreed to make a few improvements on the second floor — a heater for winter, vents for summer, and restrooms. Finally, the big day came, and on October 15, 1962, I proudly turned on the switch lighting the Pavilion Art Museum for our first show.”
In 1968, the Pavilion Gallery was renamed the Newport Harbor Art Museum. In 1971, it received its first permanent art pieces with a donation from local company AVCO Financial Services. (OCMA’s collection today contains more than 3,000 works.)
On October 25, 1974, the museum installed, “The Audacious Years, 1961-1971.” This exhibition, looking back to the venue’s beginnings, included photos of the volunteers and professionals who conceived of and worked laboriously to establish the Balboa Pavilion Gallery. A long out-of-print catalog for this show, titled “The Audacious Years: 1961-1971,” published by the Newport Harbor Art Museum, reads: “This exhibition pays homage to that dedicated group of volunteers who in 1961 founded the Fine Arts Patrons of Newport Harbor at the Balboa Pavilion, and honors those volunteer patrons, collectors, artists, and museum professionals who through those early years helped form the framework of the present museum.”
At the “The Audacious Years” exhibition opening, Winckler discussed key events that helped to create and grow the burgeoning museum, while praising the activities of the volunteer women who helped make it all happen. She described how this group sought out tutelage from art world professionals to counsel them on museology, connoisseurship, care of museum pieces, museum management and administration.
Winckler then paid homage to museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which loaned their artwork to the Pavilion Gallery. She talked about the positive reviews the gallery received in Time, Life magazine, Art in America, Artforum and Wall Street Journal. And she thanked her exhibition committee, which included Sue Green, who later became director of the University of Maryland Art Gallery; Dorothe Curtis, who proceeded to work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and Betty Gold, who created catalogs for the museum and went on to open a gallery in Los Angeles. She also praised the museum’s first professional director, Tom Garver who had previously worked at Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum.
During her speech, Winckler gave special recognition to the museum’s acting director Betty Turnbull, who she described as having, “an innovative and creative dedication to excellence and a wonderful, gentle determination to move us forward.” Mark Turnbull, son of Turnbull and a Laguna Beach-based musician, was a teenager during the museum’s early days. He recalls growing up with a mother who “had found a place to display her zeal for art.”
The exhibitions in the museum’s first 10 years included: “Stieglitz Circle” (1963), “Rico LeBrun” (1964), “Richard Diebenkorn” (1965), “Joe Goode/Edward Ruscha” (1968) and “Robert Rauschenberg in Black and White” (1970).
In 1977, the renamed Newport Harbor Art Museum moved to its current site on San Clemente Drive, near upscale Fashion Island, with Betty Turnbull continuing as acting director. By then, the museum was collecting post-war West Coast art, including the work of John Altoon, John Baldessari, Vija Celmins and Ed Moses.
In 1981, NHAM hired Paul Schimmel, age 27, as chief curator. During eight years there, he acquired work by Chris Burden, Robert Irwin, Sol LeWitt, Claes Oldenberg, David Park, Charles Ray, James Turrell and others. He founded the Newport Biennial, later the California Biennial.
Sue Henger, the museum’s publications manager/archivist during the 1980s, recalls Schimmel’s tenure: “The staff was a reasonably cohesive team, working enthusiastically toward the goal of excellent exhibition and education programs. With Schimmel’s drive as curator, the museum originated two to three major exhibitions and three to five smaller shows each year, brought in important exhibitions and included well-curated shows from the permanent collection. Schimmel showed European artists, organizing a large exhibition from Belgium in ‘Flemish Expressions: Twentieth Century Representational Painting’ (1986-87). He curated ‘Chris Burden: A Twenty-Year Survey’ (1988) and several shows relating to abstract expressionism and action painting.”
As NHAM garnered worldwide attention, the board of directors was looking eight miles down Pacific Coast Highway to Laguna Art Museum (LAM), proposing a merger of the two museums. In March 1996, the Los Angeles Times reported that “[Gilbert] LeVasseur, as the Laguna Art Museum’s president, and [Charles] Martin, a Newport Harbor Art Museum trustee, adroitly pulled together in a few days a proposed merger plan…” Their intention was to combine the two museums and dissolve LAM and to ultimately create the larger Orange County Museum of Art.
In spite of protests by Laguna museum members, a merger went through in 1996. But in 1998, a lawsuit regarding this issue was initiated by former LAM members; it ultimately resulted in a settlement, referred to as a “joint venture,” between the two museums. Today, LAM operates independently and has had the vast majority of its art “gifted back” by OCMA, along with much of its endowment, the ownership of its land and building on Laguna’s Cliff Drive.
In 1998, the newly-created OCMA doubled the exhibition space of its original building, and began showing several important pieces from its permanent collection, including work by John Baldessari, Bruce Connor, Richard Diebenkorn, Ed Kienholz, Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol.
In 2001, Elizabeth Armstrong (today executive director of the Palm Springs Art Museum) became chief curator, helping move the museum into the 21st century. She told the OC Metro that year: “To really engage with a good work of art, you often stretch your mind. My goal as a curator is to present art that broadens horizons, enlightens, provokes, and turns people’s perspectives upside down.” Among the shows she co-curated were the 2002 and 2004 California Biennials; “Girls’ Night Out” (2004), with photography, video and film by 10 female artists, addressing identity and femininity; and “Birth of the Cool” (2007), displaying midcentury California art and design.
Dennis Szakacs became the museum’s director in 2003, soon initiating groundbreaking traveling shows including “Beautiful Losers” (2005), featuring skateboarding and street art culture. Before leaving the museum in 2014, he curated “Ain’t Painting a Pain” (2013). Displaying the work of Richard Jackson, it contained several complex room-size installations, constructed with massive amounts of paint, a few based on classic artworks such as Jacques-Louis David’s “Death of Marat” (1793). It also included a large sculpture of a peeing puppy, “Bad Dog,” installed outside of the museum.
Dan Cameron, an independent curator, was hired as OCMA’s chief curator in 2012. When asked about the shows he initiated for the museum, he replies: “California-Pacific Triennial” (2013) was the first international survey of artists from the Pacific Rim ever presented in a California museum, and as such changed the discussion about the previous California Biennial into something that moves away from local and regional distinctions into something more global.” About his “California Landscape Abstraction” (2013-14), he says: “I was inspired by what I saw as a close relationship between the development of abstraction on the West Coast, and the key role played by landscape artists of the first half of the 20th century in articulating that development.”
As OCMA looks to the future with a planned relocation to Costa Mesa, which was first made public in 2008, the institution has also endured recent internal changes, including the layoffs of Cameron and four members of the curatorial team in 2015. Following the staff dismissals, BOMB Magazine reported that a directional change is in the museum’s future as well: “The move will herald a curatorial shift that places emphasis on OCMA’s permanent collection. OCMA will also highlight its modern, 20th-century holdings, and increase its number of modern art exhibitions.” Scheduled shows at the museum are “Forms of Identity: Women Artists in the 90s” and "Pop Art Design," both opening on January 7, 2017.
Like many art institutions, OCMA has a complicated history. Throughout its existence the museum has changed homes and branding, but the commitment of a few creative individuals to show first-rate modern and contemporary art has become its sustaining force, empowering it to worldwide recognition. Or, as executive director Todd DeShields Smith says, “There is a desire in our county for a world class museum, and we have a bedrock community here supporting us.”
Top image: Andy Warhol, "Mao," 1972, Collection Orange County Museum of Art, Gift of Ulrike Kantor