Partner Spotlight | Oakland Museum of California

Exterior photo by Matthew Millman courtesy OMCA.
 
As we continue our “Partner Spotlight” series, we become more and more impressed by our partners and how they continue to creatively and successfully navigate the challenges they are currently faced with. In this spotlight, we focus on the Oakland Museum of California ("OMCA"). While their museum doors have been closed since March, behind those doors they have proven how creative and strong they are as they continue to improve, enhance and offer many forms of art and beyond to the world in a time with so many unknowns.
 
Lori Fogarty, OMCA Director and CEO. Photo by Terry Lorant courtesy OMCA.
 
We caught up with Lori Fogarty, Director and CEO of the OMCA, a position she has held since March 2006. In her role, she oversees all museum programmatic and administrative operations. Her role there has included leading a huge Museum renovation project that completed in 2013 and currently leading a campus and garden transformation, scheduled for completion in early 2021. Prior to her current position, Fogarty held positions as Executive Director of the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito and Senior Deputy Director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). She is a graduate of Occidental College and has served on the Boards of Association of Art Museum Directors, The Crucible, Head-Royce School, the Association of Children’s Museums, Children’s Day School in San Francisco, and Enterprise for High School Students.
 
The OMCA is one of our favorite spots in Oakland and we know you will agree, if you don’t share the love already. Enjoy as you read on...
 
A little bit about the museum, some history, Lori’s involvement, how she came to OMCA
 
“The year the Museum was founded, 1969, was a radical time; the Vietnam War was at its peak, the Black Panther Party was gaining momentum, and the new Oakland Museum opened its doors as a ‘Museum of the People,’ with a multi-disciplinary scope exploring the art, history, and natural sciences of California while addressing subjects of national importance. Last year we celebrated our 50th anniversary as the Museum continues its commitment to present topics of relevance through exhibitions and programs, inspiring Californians to create a more vibrant future for themselves and their communities.
 
OMCA places the visitor experience and community engagement at the core of all its activities. This includes; special exhibitions, the preservation and exhibition of our collections, the development of a broad range of educational and public programs, and includes our popular ‘Friday Nights at OMCA’ events. As we’ve adapted to COVID, the Museum has also expanded its digital offerings through the launch of ‘OMCA at Home,’ where visitors can find at-home learning activities, behind-the-scenes content, virtual exhibition tours, and much more.
 
I believe that museums can and should serve as sites of common ground, connecting people and nourishing their lives. My vision as the Director of OMCA is to cultivate a space that truly reflects Oakland. We’re taking steps to realize this vision through major enhancements to our campus, including opening the exterior walls to create a new entrance and welcome neighbors. Visitors will soon be able to enter OMCA’s beautiful gardens and campus through a new entryway on 12th Street facing Lake Merritt, as well as enjoy our revamped café ‘Town Fare by Tanya Holland,’ located one block from the Lake Merritt BART station.”
 
OMCA’s relationship to Oakland and the Bay Area
 
“At OMCA, we’re a museum, garden, and gathering space in the heart of Oakland. We welcome approximately 400,000 visitors per year, including 39,000 students from all Northern California counties. Over the last ten years, OMCA has deepened its commitment to serving as an institution ‘of the people,’ organizing exhibitions and programs that illuminate the stories of individuals and communities who are often under-represented in the country’s cultural, social, and political dialogues, but who make up a large cross-section of the United States. This includes exhibitions on the Black Panthers, marijuana legalization, genocide of Native populations in California, and the LGBTQ+ community. When we’re able to safely reopen, we’re looking forward to presenting major exhibitions on Afrofuturism, Heath Ceramics founder Edith Heath, and Bay Area feminist movements. OMCA is also supporting the Black Cultural Zone and other local Black-led organizations in the preservation, documentation, and archiving of mural artworks in Oakland that were created as an expression of the Black Lives Matter movement, in an effort to document our current moment in Oakland.”
 
Photos courtesy OMCA. Credits from upper left; OMCA Facebook page, Odell Hussey, and Shaun Roberts.
 
How the pandemic has affected the museum
 
“Like every other organization, the COVID-19 pandemic turned our plans upside down. We pivoted to connect with our community digitally through ‘OMCA at Home,’ offering resources, fun activities, and collections content online. Internally, we’ve taken an equity-based approach to reduce expenses through an organization-wide reduced hours schedule, enabling OMCA to keep all staff on payroll to date.
 
Throughout this crisis—the most challenging situation I’ve ever encountered in the twenty years I’ve been a director—I have been so deeply grateful to be part of a connected network with other cultural institutions, with our local community, and with my own family. We will all need to support each other in ways that we probably never imagined. At OMCA, we will need to reimagine the way we serve our communities. Can we make our theater available to performing arts groups that no longer have a space? Can our classrooms become pop-ups for programs that other organizations produce, thereby keeping their missions alive? Can we offer comfort to friends across the state and even the country?
 
My hope is that, even as we are keeping our physical distance, our connections to our communities will be strengthened and we will remember to tap into them not just in times of crisis.”
 
How the BLM movement has affected the museum
 
“The pain, despair, and trauma caused by the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and many others continues to be felt here in Oakland and around the country. Systemic and structural racism are being laid bare, from the ongoing police violence towards people of color to the rates of illness and death from COVID-19.
 
At OMCA, we stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and we know the work begins at home. As an organization, we’re in the process of reinventing how we operate as a museum, in response to call for greater transparency and participation by broader staff in decision-making, and respect for roles and expertise that have not been typically valued within museums. Our staff has organized to assess our institutional priorities and operations, making recommendations for changes as we move forward. We will be continuing this work in the next months and years and look forward to sharing with our community our transformation into a truly anti-racist organization.”
 
Where the pandemic has provided silver linings for the organization including best lessons learned and new best practices that will remain in the post-pandemic “new normal”
 
“As an in-person community space, we had to reimagine how we used our time and talents after OMCA closed due to shelter-in-place requirements. The pandemic has fostered an environment for us to work in new and creative ways. For example, our collections staff were able to undergo a major cataloguing project from home, we formed cross-functional teams to create new digital content for 'OMCA at Home,' and some staff were even redeployed to sew masks that were donated to the community. This moment of sheltering in place has also allowed both our Board and staff to engage in deep reflection about how we, as an institution, can live our values of equity and inclusion and plan for a brighter future as an institution of, by, and for the people.”
 
Exhibition "No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man". Photo courtesy OMCA Facebook page.
 
Personal experience and perspective during the pandemic
 
“In many ways, I feel I’m on the steepest learning curve I’ve ever experienced, as a person and as a director. The health and economic crisis have tested me as a leader, navigating challenges that are unlike any we’ve experienced. And, at the same time, the movement in support of Black Lives and racial justice has called on me to examine my personal experience, my own ways of working, and the history of this country. These learnings have been at once uncomfortable and distressing, and inspiring and motivating. I am also a mother of an 18-year-old daughter—a member of the Class of 2020 that lost all of the milestone celebrations of high school, like graduation and prom, and is now entering college by staying at home and taking classes online. This time has definitely called upon our resilience as individuals and as a family.”
 
How do you feel this pandemic will affect museums for the long term?
 
“I do think the museums we come back to as staff and visitors will be forever different than the museums we closed in March. I believe museums will be reinventing the ways they serve their publics, from expanded digital engagement and online programming, to new partnerships and alliances with organizations that are coming together out of mutual need and support. In turn, once it is safe for people to come back to these gathering spaces, our communities will have a new appreciation for what it means to connect with others, to connect with physical objects and experiences, to connect to shared stories, and to connect history with a vision for a more just future.”
 
We're sure you agree that the OMCA is truly a special organization. There is so much to learn from them, we can't help but look forward to the day when we can visit their beautiful space in person once again to take it all in. Until that day comes, experiencing their magic from your own home by visiting them online is almost as good.
 

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