Can the Oakland Museum of California Stay Relevant?

Gift by sculptor Bruce Beasley fits into institution's plan to diversify.


Sculptor Bruce Beasley’s generous gift includes his work, archives, and West Oakland studios and gardens.

Photo by Stephen Loewinsohn

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Changing demographics and digital technology are blazing through cultural institutions and scorching social conventions like a California wildfire. Perhaps nowhere is this more visible than in America’s museums, once-staid repositories of history, science, art, and culture.

If dragging out antiquated blueprints and fashioning exhibits according to old imagery will no longer suffice, how can the 45-year-old Oakland Museum of California maneuver to reflect Oakland’s diversity? Will it use technology to make fertile connections, or succumb to fashion and use splashy mobile device interactions as just so much digital swag?

The museum is meeting this challenge head-on. Its metamorphosis has stretched over nearly a decade and includes a $63 million capital campaign, building renovation, gallery reinstallation, rejiggered programming, and upgraded technological capabilities. And museum leaders say their massive 2011 internal restructuring—shifting oversight from the city of Oakland in tandem with the OMCA Foundation to just the nonprofit foundation—helped make their organization more agile.

One sign of this transformation is the popular Friday Nights @ OMCA series, which combines Off the Grid food trucks, live D.J.’s, half-price admission, and low-key gallery “happenings.” It has expanded to a monthly festival with attendance and feedback from visitors driving its growth.

Yet Executive Director Lori Fogarty said OMCA has room for improvement, namely in reflecting the area’s diversity, particularly its African-American, Latino, and Asian communities. She said that holding more offsite events, developing multimedia exhibits planned with input from Oakland’s ethnic populations, and conducting partnerships with schools and research centers will make future programming more diverse.

The museum took a major step in that direction last year with its announcement that sculptor Bruce Beasley will bequeath a gift valued at $20 million, the largest private gift in the museum’s history. The donation includes his works, archives, and his two-block West Oakland studios and gardens and a multimillion dollar endowment to support sculpture-related exhibitions, residences, public programs, and research at the future Bruce Beasley Sculpture Center.

In an interview in her office two weeks after the Oct. 9 announcement, Fogarty was eagerly grappling with the gift’s enormous possibilities and responsibilities. “We hope to have one program early in the year, even a simple one like an open house, so people can see the space,” Fogarty said. It’s clear that engaging the public in the center’s development is integral to her plans.

Given Beasley’s interest and investment in 3D printing and still-developing technologies, Fogarty said a unique hybrid, perhaps scientists and artists collaborating, is a likely direction. But more important, she said, having a physical presence in West Oakland introduced a provocative question: How do we ensure the area benefits from economic recovery and our presence without its also suffering gentrification and losing its history?

As if to answer that question, in 2016 the museum plans a major exhibition coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party. Senior Curator of Art René de Guzman believes visitors expect OMCA to provide smart, welcoming, relevant experiences. He’s working with a young generation of local and national artists who are either the children of Black Panther members or were influenced by their legacy. “The [exhibit] will involve projects that address community need as well as celebrate the Panther legacy through contemporary art, music, and other forms of contemporary culture,” he said.

Senior Curator of History Louise Pubois noted that art, history, and natural science curators who once worked separately now interact. OMCA invites people with vested interest and knowledge in an exhibit to work side by side to add robustness. Professional evaluators offer insights into what works and doesn’t.

“The audience we’re trying to attract is all of Oakland, not just a slice of it; the feedback is vital,” she said. “Museums can’t be ‘the temple of knowledge.’ We have to be brokers—a place where you as a visitor can see yourself in the exhibits.”

Pacific Worlds, a show opening in 2015, is a good example of how the curators are rejecting a “dramatically lit treasure show” approach, Pubois said. Instead, curators are asking what they can do with this amazing collection of oceanic material and make it relevant to California today. The answer is being provided by Pacific Islanders who are working with OMCA to interpret the objects’ significance through first-person narratives and re-envisioning history through dance, art, and cultural traditions. Pubois said their input forms the nucleus and the nexus, connecting disparate elements of the exhibit.

Use of technology also is testing OMCA’s ability to create personalized hands-on experiences. Fogarty said changes since she came to the museum in 2006 leave her feeling like “we jumped from one world to another.” And without deep, fundamental connections to visitors, a museum’s high-tech hardware could lead to distraction instead of discovery.

Pubois said the museum has integrated new thinking about technology’s role in its future, recognizing the commonplace use of social media and iPad interactions. In the future, museums must challenge themselves to use the tools judiciously and purposefully, Pubois suggested.

The same push is happening at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, where executive director Nina Simon often implements, writes about, and evaluates three uses of technology: personal, shared, and immersive interactions with an exhibit’s content.

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