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OC Leader Board: Looking at Life Through Art

Editor’s Note: The Orange County Museum of Art this week is celebrating the first anniversary of its $94 million building at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Heidi Zuckerman, who ran the Aspen Art Museum from 2005-19, became CEO of OCMA in 2021.

Since 2019, I have hosted around 130 podcasts titled “About Art.” My first guest was the bicyclist Lance Armstrong because I’ve always been interested in 10Xing impact.

While I grew up around art and have talked a lot about the impact on me by my self-made, entrepreneurial grandmother, it was my sophomore year in college that I realized the power of art.

After having an argument with my college boyfriend, I walked into an art gallery in downtown Philadelphia and was emotionally transported from that moment to one of curiosity and calm.

Ever since then it has become a personal mission to connect people to art and artists to make their lives better. Art and business have more in common than might appear at first blush.

The Connections

Prior to arriving in Orange County, I called Bob Olson, who I knew from Aspen, to get the inside scoop on the museum and the broader community.

After I was appointed, I asked Bob, who owns the biggest hotel development company in California, to join the board and chair the New Building Committee where he would work with our Pritzker-prize winning architect Thom Mayne.

I took my first hard-hat tour of the museum construction site with Anton Segerstrom, with whom I immediately connected around our shared obsession for art.

Among my earliest meetings was also a visit to the Lugano Diamonds headquarters with David Emmes to meet with Moti and Idit Feder and secured their support of free general admission for the museum for the first 10 years.

Human Right

My life’s work has been to create access to art for all people—I believe access to art is a human right, not a privilege. My whole career has been around art.

As the only female museum director in the United States that has completed two new building projects, I know the incredible job creation these kinds of infrastructure projects offer.

More broadly, I know that museums and art are good for people, for communities and for business. I have seen first-hand how having a world-class art museum in Orange County is great for our business community.

A month ago, we welcomed our 250,000th guest. In less than a year, we have had over twelve times the annual visitors at our new home than we had annually at the prior location in Newport Beach.

It has been a wonderful and welcome surprise.

OCMA’s attendance is comparable to museums with three times the budget, and this means, of course, that each dollar that the museum spends to serve our visitors, each dollar that a donor gives, has an incredibly high impact.

We recently partnered with Compass to create a social return on investment (SROI) survey of our visitors. We asked people to assign a dollar value to the experiences of spending time with friends and family. Their average answer was $278.

The value of switching off/decompressing/destressing—$288; the value of learning and engaging with artists and artwork—$274; and the value of feeling welcome and included—$330.

The total average combined value in all four categories for one museum visit was $1,170.

Extrapolating this data for 250,000 visitors, the projected emotional, social and intellectual value is $292.5 million. The total value for learning and engaging with artists and artwork alone was $68.5 million.

Free admission influenced 65% of visitors to come on the day of their visit and free admission will influence 70% of visitors’ decisions to return.

More than 90% of visitors would bring friends or family to visit. More than 30% shopped at our museum store, The Mind, run by Nicolas Libert and Emmanuel Renoird, or dined at Verdant, with our culinary partners Chef Ross Pangilinan and Chef Nick Weber, or had a drink at our Sweet James bar.

Education

In addition to great shopping, dining and art, at OCMA we have offered 304 museum educational experiences in our first 286 days serving over 16,000 participants at public programs and welcoming 32 school groups and over 1,200 children—all of whom receive free lunch thanks to support from Henry Walker, Phil Bond and Farmers & Merchants Bank.

What outsized attendance does for a museum is that it makes it a low-cost producer. A metric of cost per visitor (CPV) is calculated by dividing the annual operating budget by the number of visitors.

It is a measure of what a museum spends for each person who comes through the door, a standard for how effective the cost of running the business is and how much impact the museum is having. The average of the top 14 museums in the country by attendance spend $83 per visitor.

In 2023, OCMA’s CPV was $32, less than 40% of the average of the list. In the prior Newport Beach location, the CPV, even though the annual budget was half of what our budget is now, was $200, more than six times what we now spend.

By any measure the $32 CPV sends a message to the business community that we are a high impact institution, and to our donors that dollar for dollar their philanthropy is having a far-reaching effect and influence. OCMA is a great value proposition.

Museums do not earn their way into the black—they rely on charitable contributions. Earned income, including charging admissions, does not count for much, historically only 20% of the total and of that admission is an average of 7%.

What we do is offer an opportunity to be a part of something that we think matters. The only question that I ask every single person who a guest on my podcast is—artist, collector, art dealer, musician, CEO, actor, or athlete—is “Why does art matter?”

The responses are varied, unique and highly authentic and personal. And that’s why I love art.

Like any other relationship we have, what we invest, we reap. Art, like learning and love, can be for anyone! And as I shared on a recent podcast when asked for my sales pitch for anyone who still thinks art might not be for them:

“You only have one life. This moment is gone. And then the next moment is gone. If you are not looking at art, you are not looking at life!”

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Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung joined the Orange County Business Journal in 2021 as their Marketing Creative Director. In her role she creates all visual content as it relates to the marketing needs for the sales and events teams. Her responsibilities include the creation of marketing materials for six annual corporate events, weekly print advertisements, sales flyers in correspondence to the editorial calendar, social media graphics, PowerPoint presentation decks, e-blasts, and maintains the online presence for Orange County Business Journal’s corporate events.
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