Heidi Zuckerman is the CEO of the Orange County Museum of Art

Zuckerman brings a lifelong love of art and an entrepreneurial spirit to her role as CEO of the Orange County Museum of Art.
Photograph by Emily J. Davis

As a college student looking for a summer job in Palo Alto, Zuckerman cold-called art galleries in the phone book until she found one that would take her on. The gallery exposed her to leading abstract expressionist and conceptual artists. “I got all of this incredible experience. I did my first studio (visit) with an artist; it was Sam Francis. I sold my first work of art, which was a Robert Motherwell monoprint, and met Bruce Conner.” She never looked back.

Her career spans posts at the UC Berkeley Art Museum, the Pacific Film Archive, and the Jewish Museum in New York. As director of the Aspen Art Museum, she oversaw the construction of a new building by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Shigeru Ban and proved herself a prodigious fundraiser for the $47 million facility. She also found innovative ways to raise the museum’s profile, such as collaborating with Aspen Skiing Co. to commission top artists to create artwork printed on lift tickets. “Part of my philosophy is I want to be able to put art in front of people, particularly when they’re not expecting it. Sometimes people think a museum might be weird or scary or ‘not for me,’ but if they encounter art unexpectedly, we might be able to capture the curiosity, and they can have this potentially transcendent moment.”

She left the Aspen museum in late 2019 and spent the next year writing books; hosting a podcast, “Conversations About Art”; and working on other projects. She was lured back to the museum world in part by OCMA’s new 53,000-square-foot building designed by Morphosis, the firm founded by another Pritzker Prize-winning architect, Thom Mayne. Her family felt comfortable in Orange County, too. “We hadn’t spent that much time here, but my daughter is an equestrian and she showed here. We were here last summer, and my son said, ‘This has to be the most beautiful place in the world. It’s like Northern California landscape and Southern California weather.’ I think I was just sort of fated to come here.”

She spent the first 100 days of her tenure in Costa Mesa talking and listening to a broad cross-section of people about what they loved about the museum and where they thought it fell short. A clear favorite was the California Biennial, exhibitions mounted from 1984 to 2010 that highlighted emerging artists on the brink of national recognition. So the new building will open next October with the California Biennial 2022 (CB22). Zuckerman is curating another of the inaugural shows, “13 Women,” a reference to the women who founded the original museum on Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach in 1962, the second contemporary art museum in Southern California. “We have deep holdings of female artists in our collection, including artists I have these long-standing relationships with such as (pioneering video artist) Diana Thater. We own one of her most significant works. Coming here, the collection was a big draw for me.”

She envisions a huge pool of potential visitors, members, and donors at OCMA and is eager to tap into that for the future of the museum. “I’m still figuring out where the opportunities are here, but one of them for sure is our proximity to South Coast Plaza and the fact that 24 million people a year come (to it) as a shopping destination. One of the enhancements I made to the museum was to create a dedicated retail experience within the institution. … I would like people to be able to bring things home that reflect the experience that they have in the museum.”

OCMA’s fundraising gala, Art Sense, is Oct. 8.
Email knemirov@ocma.net to buy tickets or donate.

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