As the OCMA prepares to open, Laguna is the quiet home base of the museum’s CEO

Laguna Beach resident Heidi Zuckerman is the new CEO and director of the Orange County Museum of Art, currently under construction. Photo by Barbara McMurray

By Barbara McMurray, Special for The Independent

Laguna Beach has long attracted artists and art lovers. It’s also home to Heidi Zuckerman, CEO and Director of the Orange County Museum of Art, an impressive new building under construction in Costa Mesa slated to open Oct. 8.

“We are building the museum that Orange County deserves,” Zuckerman said. “There is no other structure like this in Orange County. The level of installation complexity and the high level of design and specificity are unparalleled.

She works with Thom Mayne, Pritzker Prize winner and founder of Morphosis Architects who designed the state-of-the-art 53,000 square foot building. It is twice the size of the museum’s former location near Fashion Island in Newport Beach.

The building’s unique interior-exterior design features retractable walls, skylights, a spacious rooftop terrace for exhibitions and events, and a voluminous lobby atrium that can be configured as a black box theater or a bright studio. The gallery space totaling 25,000 square feet will showcase the museum’s contemporary art collection and major traveling exhibitions. A grand staircase and plaza create an inviting public gathering space.

Originally from Palo Alto, Zuckerman fell in love with art at an early age. She has held curatorial positions at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and the Jewish Museum in New York. As CEO and director of the Aspen Art Museum for 14 years, she oversaw the construction of a new building by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Shigeru Ban before leaving in late 2019 to host a podcast, “Conversations About Art” and write a series of books, “Conversations with Artists”. She arrived at OCMA in January 2021.

Her supernatural calm belies that she is in charge of a dizzying array of logistics. She organizes the construction details of a very unusual building, organizes one of the five exhibitions that will open the museum and is its spokesperson. Her OCMA curatorial debut is “13 Women,” a nod to the visionary women who founded the original museum on Newport Beach’s Balboa Peninsula in 1962. She also added 25 new objects to the most of 4,500 OCMA collections and has hired most of the current 22. -staff member.

Once open, the museum will have 40 full-time employees, one of whom will be a building engineer she is about to hire. This staff member will be responsible for learning and managing the complex infrastructure of the state-of-the-art facility.

It helps that Zuckerman is a dedicated practitioner of yoga and meditation who can see the world through a Zen lens. Playing in a pickleball league also provides stress relief.

The new OCMA building is another gem of the region’s cultural campus, joining the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, South Coast Repertory and the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at Julianne and George Argyros Plaza. Its striking centerpiece is “Connector”, the 65-foot tall Corten steel sculpture by Richard Serra.

Outdoor public spaces invite visitors to relax and linger. On Earth Day, crews planted a dozen palo verde trees on the upper deck. Many of California’s live oak trees will soon be dug out to create a shaded boulevard.

Of his exhibitions and events, Zuckerman said, “I want to expand the range of content that we present, with the idea that we want people to feel welcome here. Orange County is wedged between two cities: Los Angeles and San Diego. Orange County is one of the most diverse counties in California, made up of 34 cities. We are a county, and as a county we can serve all of these cities, all of these communities, all of this diversity.

Its goal is to remove barriers to entry and create a cultural hub where people of all kinds can mingle. To that end, general admission to the museum will be free for the first 10 years, thanks to a $2.5 million subscription donation that Zuckerman secured from Newport Beach-based Lugano Diamonds.

“Art doesn’t care how much money you have, who you voted for, what you do or don’t do on Sunday,” Zuckerman said.

Zuckerman’s new position comes with a bit of fence-mending among the other residents of Laguna. In 1996, a battle raged for control of the Laguna Art Museum when the Newport Harbor Art Museum, now OCMA, attempted what amounted to a hostile takeover of its assets. Many cast members of the failed bid drama have moved on or died. Shortly after arriving and learning this story, Zuckerman investigated and returned 200 works of art that had belonged to LAM.

She is optimistic about the tumultuous past and offers an invitation. “Come see,” she said. “If you don’t like what you see, come back, and it will be different.”

More information and the daily progress of the museum can be viewed at

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James C. Tibbs