The Orange County Museum of Art is making headlines for its grand new venue opening this month, but that’s not the only local museum generating buzz. It’s not even the only O.C. museum moving into expanded new digs. The county’s major institutions—committed to accessibility, scholarship, and diverse voices and experiences—are shattering the old stereotype of the museum as stuffy, stodgy, and snooty.
Thoughtfully curated exhibits, in galleries or on screens, are just part of the dynamic programming schedules. By day, there are art-making workshops, cultural festivals, and children’s story times; nighttime might be given over to author lectures, film screenings, and concerts. These aren’t your grandparents’ museums—they’re probably not your parents’ either, as they continue to evolve their cultural identity.
“Orange County has come into its own in terms of arts and culture, and we are all so fortunate to be here now, witnessing this visible investment in culture,” says Kim Kanatani, director of the UC Irvine Jack & Shanaz Langson Institute & Museum of California Art. “I greatly look forward to OCMA’s opening and to the Hilbert’s expansion, as well as Langson IMCA’s new home. All of this positions Orange County as a vibrant area with increasing opportunities for cultural enrichment, engagement, and collaboration.”
Here’s a closer look at what’s happening at each of the county’s major museums.
For years, Bowers Museum has brought the world to Orange County, with exhibits of the Dead Sea Scrolls, China’s Terra Cotta Warriors, and Egyptian mummies, among many others. Now the museum brings Orange County to the world, with robust digital programming that originated in the wake of COVID-19.
“We’ve permanently adopted a hybrid system, offering almost all of our programs both on-site and online to serve the needs of our growing community, which is tuning in from all over the world,” says Peter Keller, Bowers president. “From our free Educator Guides being downloaded in Norway to our Free Family Festivals being livestreamed across the United States, the museum connects people and resources in a way that we just weren’t able to before.”
Even though the Santa Ana museum has gone global, the needs of local audiences are still at the forefront.
“The most important programs we have are those that provide opportunities for our underserved communities,” Keller says. “Many O.C. museums have come to recognize the importance of this responsibility, and the Bowers Museum is proud to have a leading role. With school programs for low-income students dating back decades, in recent years the Bowers has grown to provide an array of free and discounted programs for senior enrichment, Title I schools, and those most severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.”
Keller adds that the Bowers, with its focus on world-class art and artifacts, fills a different niche than other local museums. “A trip to the Bowers and the other amazing museums in Orange County ensures there’s something for everyone. Together, we’ve created a network of cultural institutions that Orange County, and truly Southern California, can be proud of.”
“Guo Pei: Art of Couture” takes the Chinese designer’s extravagant fashions from the runways and red carpets to the exhibition galleries (Nov. 12 through May 14).
2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana, 714-567-3600, bowers.org
Hilbert Museum of California Art
In 2024, the Hilbert Museum of California Art is scheduled to expand into a new space at Chapman University that will nearly triple the square footage (from 7,500 to 22,000). Two existing buildings will be joined by a courtyard expansive enough for outdoor events. A giant floating rectangle will crown the courtyard and display “Pleasures Along the Beach,” a 1969 glass mosaic by California artist Millard Sheets. Measuring 40 feet long and 16 feet high, the mural was rescued from a Home Savings Bank in Santa Monica that was scheduled for demolition.
But as Museum Director Mary Platt points out, “the excitement of a new building only lasts a year or two; it’s what’s inside that counts.” On that score, the Hilbert succeeds admirably. Visitors can see works from the museum’s collection of 20th-century California scene paintings, American illustrations, and movie art—the last two are rich sources of inspiration for Chapman’s graphic design, film, and animation students.
Platt, who worked at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in its early days, understands the importance of programming and says it’s an area where O.C. museums shine. “We’re revving up now that we are emerging from COVID with lectures, musical performances, and interactive programs for children and Chapman students,” she says. “These are the things that get people excited and bring them in to see what’s on the walls.”
And people have been coming. The Hilbert had more than 30,000 visitors in the year before the pandemic started. It draws international tourists who come between trips to Disneyland and the beach, as well as patrons from L.A. “The concept of the Orange Curtain, in terms of the arts, is being demolished,” Platt says.
Admire the rich textures and colors of the works in “Voices in Pastel: Pastel Society of the West Coast” (through Dec. 3).
167 N. Atchison St., Orange, 714-516-5880, hilbertmuseum.com (On Dec. 17, the Hilbert will open at its temporary location, 216 E. Chapman Ave.)
Established in 2017, Langson IMCA has already shown steady growth. While it is temporarily housed in an Irvine office building, the museum has an estimable permanent collection of 4,500-plus works and an ambitious vision inspired by artists with UC Irvine ties, including Chris Burden, Robert Irwin, and Alexis Smith.
“Langson IMCA benefits from a superb legacy—past and present—of arts faculty who have long championed innovation and experimentation,” museum director Kanatani says. “We aim to continue building on that spirit to become the epicenter for the study and appreciation of California Art and artists. Our mission is to examine, preserve, and present the artistic response to the state’s diverse social, cultural, and natural environments.”
In a few years, Langson IMCA will move into its home on the UC Irvine North Campus. In the meantime, Kanatani is exploring ways to bring the collection to the campus and the community with wall projections, pop-ups, and collaborations. The museum also offers a mix of programming, in person (a new series that includes lectures and plein-air painting workshops) and digital (“Beyond the Frame: Impressions of California,” an audio-visual experience created by design studio Imaginary Places premiering on the website Oct. 29). Naturally, with Langson IMCA under the auspices of UC Irvine, learning and research will be paramount.
“Imagine having faculty and scholars, artists, art critics, and educators from around the globe in residence in the institute and generating new research on California Art and then be able to disseminate that research to a broader public through the museum’s exhibitions and programs,” Kanatani says.
The museum mounts its first concurrent exhibits: “Dissolve” showcases 20 works by contemporary artists, including two commissions, while “Echoes of Perception: Peter Alexander and California Impressionism” is a tribute to the late artist and the paintings that inspired him (“Dissolve” runs through Dec. 10; “Echoes of Perception” ends Jan. 14).
18881 Von Karman Ave., 949-476-0003, imca.uci.edu
Muzeo Museum and Cultural Center
Executive Director Kelly Chidester emphasizes the Anaheim museum’s role as a community gathering place, which she says is especially vital during this time of continued social unrest.
“A lot of people are engaging with their mental health, and museums are providing safe spaces for them to take a step back from the not-so-great parts of life to reflect, but also to have the difficult conversations that are essential right now,” Chidester says.
Muzeo hosts touring exhibitions because it doesn’t have a permanent collection to draw from, and Chidester programs those shows focusing on their cultural and scholarly aspects. For instance, a recent exhibit, “Same Game, Different Smokers,” examined the advertising imagery the tobacco industry has used to market products to the Black community and the historical and societal implications of those campaigns.
“We can be broader with subject matter—our exhibits cover fine arts, humanities, history, or science,” Chidester says. “We also consider how it will play within the community: Will our patrons see something they haven’t seen before? We’re constantly engaging with the community and work closely with the city of Anaheim to get input.”
Muzeo’s commitment to the community has spawned what Chidester calls “a museum without walls.” In addition to exhibits in its four galleries, Muzeo also hosts virtual shows and programming and an annual children’s festival at Pearson Park.
“Museums need to diversify their offerings to be successful,” Chidester says. “I’m excited to see museums breaking down financial barriers and providing more points of access for patrons. Museums are for everybody.”
The world premiere of “Houdini Unchained: The Legacy of Harry Houdini” is a personal look at the master escape artist, with props from his illusions (Oct. 8 through Jan. 22).
214 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, 714-765-6450, muzeo.org
Laguna Art Museum
Julie Perlin Lee, Laguna Art Museum’s executive director, grew up in Orange County and has seen its cultural metamorphosis firsthand.
“This is such an exciting time for me. I was always told I had to leave O.C. to be part of a culturally relevant institution, but there’s no denying now that you can be part of a fantastic cultural experience here,” she says. “Of course, with OCMA, those of us who love museums have been waiting decades for this opening and I’m cheering them on.” Echoing many local museum administrators, Perlin Lee says OCMA’s expansion brings only good news for other museums: “A rising tide raises all boats.”
Laguna Art Museum is the grande dame of local museums. Founded in 1918 by artists embedded in the community, “we’re grounded in a history that was highly influential as one of the original artist colonies in California,” Perlin Lee says. “They were real trendsetters in art and visionaries in their own right.” The museum honors that legacy while also drawing a throughline to modern and contemporary works. For a recent exhibit of modernist painter Francis De Erdely’s portraits of immigrant workers, the museum brought in artist John Sonsini to talk about the commonalities between their works, even though they were produced decades apart.
Perlin Lee adds that Laguna Art Museum’s coastal location gives it a certain earthiness. “We have world-class art, but we don’t mind if you have sand between your toes; there’s a warmth and comfort here that I love.” That ambience is significant.
“An article recently came out about how being around artwork reduces anxiety and depression, and we all need that uplift,” she says. “Being in a room and looking at something together is a shared experience, and that’s important.”
The 10th anniversary of the Art & Nature Festival includes “The Sea Around Us,” a 360-degree video installation by Rebeca Méndez, above, and “Pyramidion,” at leftt, Kelly Berg’s interactive sculptural experience spread out over the nearby park and beach (Nov. 3 through 6).
307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach, 949-494-8971, lagunaartmuseum.org