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Orange County Museum of Art
Photograph: Time Out/Michael Juliano

The Orange County Museum of Art debuts a bright (and free) museum worth crossing county lines for

The glassy new OCMA building in Costa Mesa doubles the exhibition space of the 60-year-old institution.

Michael Juliano
Written by
Michael Juliano
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It’s a sunny new Southern California art museum filled with works from avant-garde newcomers and familiar contemporary figures like Barbara Kruger and Ed Ruscha, blessed with a spacious terrace, distinctive design and always-free admission. You’re sold, right Angelenos? Great. You’ll just need to head on down to Costa Mesa to see it, but minor details, right?

Yes, the newest notable museum in town isn’t really in L.A. at all: The Orange County Museum of Art, which has changed names and locations numerous times over the past 60 years, has settled into a splashy new space at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts campus. There’s nothing else quite like it in the county, and OC art lovers (and Angelenos willing to put in a little extra mileage) will be able to see for themselves when OCMA opens on October 8 with 24 straight hours of around-the-clock programming.

Clad in white terra-cotta tiles and lots of voyeuristic glass, the new OCMA boasts around 25,000 square feet of exhibition space, which is double its previous location in Newport Beach. The twisting, glassy structure by L.A.’s Morphosis Architects (which was mostly complete during our preview visit earlier this month) isn’t just about gallery space: It features a classroom atop its entrance that literally elevates arts education above all else, a plant-focused restaurant called Verdant (and a bar that’s named after—we’re not even joking—Sweet James, the billboard attorney) as well as a terrace and amphitheater-like staircase that together hold about a thousand people.

Orange County Museum of Art
Photograph: Time Out/Michael Juliano
Orange County Museum of Art
Photograph: Time Out/Michael Juliano

To architect Thom Mayne, that plaza is the key part of the museum, the element that makes OCMA not just another shiny object but a proper public space. “One of the things that I’m very proud of in this building: We built a building and left three quarters of the site empty and it’s a piazza,” he says.

The museum opens with, on paper, five exhibitions, but really you’ll find three gallery-sized shows, a tiny hallway display and a sizable outdoor sculpture. On the ground floor, “California Biennial 2022: Pacific Gold” revives the museum’s nearly four-decade tradition of surveying artists all over the state, while “13 Women” pays tribute to the original 13 female founders of the museum’s first incarnation on the Balboa Peninsula with a rotating display of works from 13 contemporary women artists, plus a few other pieces from the permanent collection. “Fred Eversley: Reflecting Back” collects the locally-based Light and Space artist’s colorful lens-like sculptures into the mezzanine gallery, while a small space just outside of it pays tribute to Peter Walker, landscape designer of some of the signature elements of the surrounding Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Finally, out on the terrace, you’ll find Sanford Biggers’s Of many waters..., a monumental sequined sculpture that combines a classical European pose with a traditional West African mask.

Orange County Museum of Art
Photograph: Time Out/Michael JulianoFred Eversley
Orange County Museum of Art
Photograph: Time Out/Michael Juliano

Those exhibitions and all that follow for the next 10 years will be free to visit thanks to a $2.5 million gift from local business Lugano Diamonds. It’s a much-appreciated advantage for museum director Heidi Zuckerman, who views access to art as a right and not a privilege, and sees OCMA’s purpose as a welcoming means to enrich the lives of people in the community. “Just as you feel that there’s no hard and fast barrier in our building between outside and inside, there’s no economic barrier to experience our exhibitions and our programs,” she explains.

For Angelenos—we are, after all, an L.A.-based publication—the only barrier comes in the form of eight lanes in each direction of the 405. It took us about an hour to get there late-morning on a weekday from the San Gabriel Valley, but that time could easily double in traffic. For many coming from L.A., it’s an above-average-length commute at best and day trip territory at worst (if you’d rather avoid driving, the nearest Metrolink station is 15 to 20 minutes away in either Orange or Tustin).

Most Angelenos will approach the museum via the 405 and a streetscape that feels forged by the freeway: You exit onto a quintessentially-OC sprawling overpass and then follow some highway-width surface streets past South Coast Plaza, around an assembly of mid-rise office towers and into a parking garage.

Orange County Museum of Art
Photograph: Time Out/Michael Juliano

And then OCMA appears. It feels remarkably different from its surroundings, and so too does the rest of the area once you’re on foot. The colorful weave of stripes in Alicia McCarthy’s untitled mural offers a preview of the galleries from the sidewalk. The swooping facade and a peek at the atrium’s stacked walkways pull you through the pedestrian plaza and toward the entrance. Once inside, glass walls, windows and skylights bring the outside in, while the landscaped terrace is never more than a few steps away. The galleries, too, always offer a tease of what’s waiting in the next room; a tall window in the mezzanine looks down onto the Richard Diebenkorn canvas in the ground-floor space, where an eye-level strip of windows funnels light from the courtyard through the gift shop.

“When you walk into the lobby, you get these glimpses of the galleries,” says Brandon Welling, managing partner at Morphosis. “Everybody’s kind of constantly being exposed to where you’re going to go and the opportunities you have in the building.”

Consider this story your virtual glimpse into the galleries, because we’d definitely recommend being exposed to those opportunities in the building in real life.

The Orange County Museum of Art is located at 3333 Avenue of the Arts in Costa Mesa. It’s open Tuesday and Wednesday from 10am to 6pm, Thursday through Sat from 10am to 8pm, and Sunday from 10am to 6pm; OCMA is closed on Mondays. Limited paid parking is available in nearby garages and lots; the closest is the Tower Plaza Parking Structure (600 Anton Blvd).

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