1.15 / Review

Oakland Museum of California

By Theo Konrad Auer May 19, 2010

The question presented by the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) is this: How does an institution reinvent itself to better serve its constituents? In a city that has one of the highest per capita artist populations outside of New York, and the most diverse racial and cultural makeup of the three major cities that constitute the Bay Area, the question does not conjure an easy answer.[1]  I recently had the opportunity of following the process of OMCA’s radical re-envisioning of their art collection from inception to its grand unveiling. While, unfortunately, diversity is not prominent in many of our local museums, OMCA strives to be an exception. Opened in 1969 as a “Museum for the People,” OMCA’s answer seems to be a recommitment to its original egalitarian terms, as the museum reinvents itself as a living, interactive entity that engages an ever-changing community.

Paramount to the museum's strategy for more pronounced community engagement is its collection’s potential for interactivity. While it’s an approach that will take time to pay off both practically and conceptually, OMCA’s new direction is culturally necessary. Gone are the awkward concrete walls. Now, art is hung on standard white walls with occasional splashes of color, and pieces of art are placed alongside dioramas and photos of nature and history. Here, OMCA invokes the city square, not the commercial gallery or art fair spectacular, but a place as much for celebration and conversation as for contemplation and preservation. OMCA has a lofty goal, for sure, but one in keeping with architect Kevin Roche's original vision for the space.

OMCA’s success in engaging its audience is visible in a salon-style wall of portraits and photographs. The self-proclaimed Emperor Norton of the United States holds court while Carrie Mae Weems' conceptual photograph presents one perspective of the African American experience. There is a station set up for patrons to create self-portraits, which, once finished, enter into a cycle of self-portraits on a nearby monitor. Crowds are consistently interacting with the station, and the portraits seem to be a realization of the museum's newfound interactivity. Another demonstration of this is in the gallery’s section on California ceramics, which presents the work of famed ceramicist Peter Voulkos. Arranged around a monitor showing the artist at work with pieces by other artists such as Robert Arneson, the exhibit suggests Voulkos’ enduring influence and legacy. Here, art is a continuum in which we may take part.

Barry McGee. Untitled, 2010; installation view, in progress. Courtesy of the Artist and Oakland Museum of California. Photo: Theo K. Auer.
Gallery of California Art, installation view. Courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California.

Not all of OMCA’s new elements successfully engage viewers though, raising concerns about whether they distract from the work or add an unexpected and unseen dimension. Alongside many of the museum’s pieces are comic-book thought-bubble-style blurbs, shaded in a fleshy beige, that offer quotes from critics and artists to further the dialogue on the work presented. Mostly distracting, they seem to suggest an inherent cliquey feeling from which the museum seems to want to distance itself. One blurb by artist/activist Jaime Cortez, written in response to Enrique Chagoya's Road Map (with Helicopter)(2006), describes the work as having "combined elements from the worlds of literature, history, religion, and contemporary news to comment on faith and militarism." No kidding. The piece depicts two Christ figures in an irritatingly popular combination Byzantine/modern illustrative style as they pilot a military copter into an Alice of Wonderland figure. The aesthetic is anything but subtle. 

These explanatory thought-bubbles, along with one of the two new garishly appointed "art lounges," seem to be attempts at art evangelism that don't give the audience enough credit. One art lounge offers the opportunity to relax on stylish couches between Raymond Saunders’ The Gift of Presence (1994) and a section on conceptual art. Viewers have the opportunity to vote on whether three works under glass are "art" or not. The deserted voting receptacles are filled so overwhelmingly with yes votes that the answer to OMCA’s question is a lingering ambiguity on account of attendance and an overly simplistic concept.

Based on the number of new and returning patrons to OMCA, its new collection is a success. However, there are still a number of questions around OMCA’s reinvention. Fellow critic/curator Anuradha Vikram agrees on the notion that, while the collection is diverse, this diversity is “rooted in the identity-driven conversations of the '80s and '90s, rather than in the more contemporary discourse in which many of my peers are engaged.” [2] For me, this conversation places class, gender identity, and populist critical discourse on equal terms with that of race; a conservation that is increasingly post-ideological and post superpower—one that is truly global. On a local level, this conversation has been for far too long a one-sided affair.

While it is clear that OMCA has a ways to go before truly becoming the "People's Museum," the results of the new collection and approach are encouraging. Additions of works by Hank Willis Thomas, Trevor Paglen, and new work from Barry McGee that conjures the magic of studio practice are promising. OMCA’s collection makeover was necessary for the institution to remain relevant and better reflect the changing state of the Bay Area art community. Hopefully, their future holds more community involvement and representation.


The Oakland Museum of California opened their renovated art and history galleries to the public on May 1, 2010.


[1] Alejandra Lopez. “Racial/Ethnic Diversity and Residential Segregation in the San Francisco Bay Area.” Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Stanford University. September 2001.
[2] Interview with Anuradha Vikram, curator at Curative Projects. May 7, 2010. 

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