Seán O’Harrow remembers well a visit a decade ago to the Bowers Museum to study its Chinese collection.
“I saw it was a marvelous international museum,” he told the Business Journal.
“It fit my personality; it’s a mixture of Asian art, Pacific art, North American cultures. To me, it’s a multicultural museum.”
O’Harrow in August became the chief executive and president at the Santa Ana-based museum, which ranks No. 57 on the Business Journal’s annual list of nonprofits, with revenue up 29% to $9.3 million for the 12-month period ended June 30.
He replaced Peter Keller, who headed Bowers for 31 years before his unexpected death a year ago. Keller brought in over 50 critically acclaimed exhibitions such as Secrets of the Silk Road, Terra Cotta Warriors, and Mummies: Treasures from the British Museum.
Keller also forged partnerships with some of the greatest museums throughout the world, including the British Museum and the Palace Museums in Beijing and Taiwan.
“My predecessor, Peter Keller, did a remarkable job expanding the museum, not only physically, but also globally,” O’Harrow said.
The new CEO is looking to further that success as head of Bowers Museum, which he says is “famous for bringing the world to Orange County.”
“It’s a fully international museum that covers thousands of years of human existence.”
In the past decade, O’Harrow ran the Honolulu Museum of Art and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, which he compared to the Orange County Museum of Art in Costa Mesa.
Bowers is different than the OC Museum of Art, which he said focuses on contemporary art by living artists.
“Their role is to explore new frontiers and new ideas,” O’Harrow said. “Although we’re interested in new ideas, we’re also covering a lot more human existence with art and culture that goes back thousands of years.”
The 100,000-square-foot museum along Main Street, which annually attracts about 150,000 visitors, has eight permanent collection exhibitions with a particular focus on the art and culture of Asia and the Pacific.
In the coming spring, the museum is planning a show to highlight Asian Comics.
“It’s such an important art format,” he said, noting Orange County has several video game companies who hire artists.
“All museums want to appeal to broader and younger demographics. We hope this will be a big show for all ages.”
O’Harrow’s goals as CEO include connecting more with the community and bolstering Bowers’ endowment, which is currently around $25 million.
In past years, its board of directors has attracted business heavyweights like real estate exec Ed Roski and First American Financial’s Parker Kennedy, whose family has been a longtime supporter of the museum.
It still packs weight with top level executives like finance committee chair Robert Rona, who was non-executive chairman of the Capital Group, the Los Angeles-based investment firm nowadays with $2.3 trillion in assets.
An honorary board member is Charlie Zhang, who founded the Pick Up Stix Chinese fast-food restaurant chain.
The museum’s board currently includes William H. Lyon, former CEO of William Lyon Homes; John Lee, who is on the board of directors at loanDepot Inc.; and Mary Tu, whose husband John Tu co-founded Kingston Technology Co., the second biggest privately held company based in Orange County when ranked by revenue.
The Mary and John Tu Foundation in August donated $1 million to Bowers to support the expansion and improvement of various education and exhibition programs, including a program to encourage creativity in the senior community.
The museum has a variety of its sections named after donors like the Dorothy and Donald Kennedy Wing, the Anderson-Hsu-Tu Gallery, and the Sharon D. Thompson Foyer.
“We’re always looking for business-minded people to partner with us,” O’Harrow said.
O’Harrow would like to showcase more of the museum’s 100,000 objects, particularly sub-Saharan Africa and Mesoamerica.
He’s aiming to update the older wing of the museum that features a historical Californian collection with artifacts from famous families who originally settled in California like the Picos, Yorbas and Selpulvedas.
“We are the cultural archive of Orange County,” O’Harrow said. “The community connects well with the museum.
“It’s very accessible and it’s very pretty.”
Bowers Highlights Iconic ‘The Great Wave’
The Bowers Museum is currently featuring what it calls “one of history’s most iconic prints”: Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave.”
It’s part of a collection of more than 100 paintings, woodblock prints and book illustrations from Hokusai, a Japanese artist who lived from 1760 to 1849.
He is considered by some to be the father of modern-day manga, a style of Japanese comic books and graphic novels aimed at adults as well as children.
The museum this year introduced three other exhibitions featuring bead art from women in South Africa, paintings and sculptures selected by the California Art Club, and most recently, a photography gallery compiled by Peter Fetterman.
“Beyond the Great Wave: Works by Hokusai from the British Museum,” is on display until Jan. 7.
“The Great Wave” is a woodblock print from Hokusai’s art series titled “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.” The piece on display at Bowers is one of the earliest preserved examples of the print Hokusai created in 1831 and hangs alongside multiple paintings and drawings from the artist’s 70-year career.
The exhibit marks the first time this specific print of “The Great Wave” has traveled to California.