The Laguna Beach resident is the new director and CEO of the Orange County Museum of Art, which will move into a new building in Costa Mesa in late 2022.
By Sharon Stello
Heidi Zuckerman, who was the longtime director of Aspen Art Museum in Colorado, realized during the pandemic that she wanted to return to the coast, having grown up in Palo Alto, in Northern California. So, when the opportunity to lead the Orange County Museum of Art presented itself, she decided to go for it; she started the position in February and now resides in Laguna Beach.
“I love California and have spent much of my life here,” Zuckerman says. “Like many people, COVID offered the opportunity to reevaluate what matters most to me, and living by the beach feels essential. I have also been a longtime fan of OCMA and I am incredibly honored to be the CEO and director here.
“… We bought a house in Arch Beach Heights and I love everything about living in Laguna—the people, the landscape, the energy. I think it’s the most perfect place on the planet.”
OCMA will move into a new building in late 2022 on the Segerstrom Center campus in Costa Mesa after formerly being located in Newport Beach and then opening a temporary space, OCMAExpand-Santa Ana, which closed during the pandemic. Like the Aspen museum she previously helmed from 2005 to 2019, this one is also designed by a Pritzker Architecture Prize-winner.
During her tenure in Aspen, she worked with the board to reimagine the museum as a world-class institution. Over her career, she has curated more than 200 museum exhibitions and believes it’s important to make contemporary art both accessible and engaging for the public.
Here in Orange County, she’s excited about the possibilities with the new building and a recent announcement that admission will be free for the first decade due to a $2.5 million donation by Lugano Diamonds.
“The building is the opportunity to finish Henry Segerstrom’s dream for the Center—OCMA is the final piece of the cultural puzzle here,” she says. “… We are creating the museum for the 21st century. … I believe access to art is a basic human right, not a privilege. Our goal is to remove as many barriers of entry as possible and to connect as many people as we can to art and artists, and free admission is a critical step in that direction.”
In addition to her work with museums, Zuckerman has written a book series titled “Conversations with Artists”; the third volume is set to come out by year’s end. She also started a podcast, “Conversations About Art,” in 2019 and has since recorded more than 70 episodes.
“On the podcast, we talk about art and ideas around art and uncertainty, art and happiness, and art and spirituality,” she says. “I speak to all sorts of people in addition to visual artists, curators and collectors—I talk to athletes, actors, musicians, politicians and CEOs, people I admire and respect, about these topics. The hope always is to connect people to art, artists and ideas to make their lives better.”
What are your plans for the museum’s future?
Heidi Zuckerman: The museum was founded 60 years ago by 13 audacious women who wanted to bring the best of modern and contemporary art to Orange County, and everyone who supports us is part of achieving that simple yet profound goal. My vision is to look back at their original vision while looking forward. The challenges include convincing the broadest possible audience that art can be for them.
Can you give us a hint about the exhibits that will be shown in the new building?
We’ve announced some of our inaugural exhibitions, which will include the return of the “California Biennial 2022,” co-curated by Elizabeth Armstrong, Essence Harden and Gilbert Vicario. I’ll be curating an exhibition called “13 Women,” which references the 13 women who founded the museum and will draw from our collection. And we’ve also announced “Fred Eversley: Reflecting Back (the World),” [which] will be Fred’s first museum retrospective on the West Coast of North America since 1978 and will elaborate on that groundbreaking exhibition of his work at OCMA—then known as the Newport Harbor Art Museum.
What’s your favorite piece of art?
I would probably choose a different artwork every single day, but today, and something I often cite, is an Yves Klein blue sponge monochrome. I love how I can get lost in the color.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I love being outside and love nature almost as much as I love art. I love to hike and really enjoy … being on the water kayaking and paddleboarding. I also do yoga and have a daily meditation practice.
What are some of your favorite places in Laguna?
I love long beach walks. That’s why Victoria Beach is my favorite. The end-to-end walk offers so much diversity of wave type and even a tide pool on a low tide day. It’s often pristine and empty early in the morning. [Also,] Zinc Cafe—matcha latte with oat milk and avocado toast is my go-to. … Sitting outside on the patio for breakfast or brunch is one of my favorite ways to start the day.