The hiring of a full-time, senior curator is Seán O’Harrow’s top priority.
Seán O’Harrow, the new president and CEO of the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, is a multicultural person, just like the institution he represents.
He was born in Paris in 1968, at the beginning of the history-rocking May ’68 riots in France. He is half Vietnamese, half European American.
He grew up in Hawaii, so a significant portion of his cultural education was formed in Honolulu. He got his bachelor’s degree in art history from Harvard University (magna cum laude), and a doctorate in the history of art from the University of Cambridge, U.K.
He has been a university professor and executive director at several museums, including the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri; the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa; and the Honolulu Museum of Art.
O’Harrow began his new job at the Bowers on Aug. 1, after the unexpected death in November of Peter C. Keller, who headed the museum for 31 years. Keller helped transform the museum from a Santa Ana city-run museum devoted to the history of Orange County into an international powerhouse, hosting exhibitions from the British Museum, the Vatican, China, Egypt, Tibet, Israel and Colombia.
“Having done some projects in Southern California, I had this suspicion that my life would end up here,” O’Harrow said during a recent Zoom interview. “I kind of feel like the Bowers is a natural pinnacle of my career.”
One of those projects included the restoration of Jackson Pollock’s first large-scale painting, “Mural” from 1943. When O’Harrow was director of the University of Iowa Museum of Art (now known as the The University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art), he organized the exhibition, “Jackson Pollock’s Mural: Energy Made Visible,” which traveled worldwide and had a stop at the Getty Center for restoration and display from 2012-14. (The exhibit was called “Jackson Pollock’s ‘Mural’: The Transitional Moment” when it was at the Getty.)
O’Harrow has a friendly, curious demeanor, not unlike the academic and financial consultant that he was at the start of his career. Near the beginning of this interview, he acknowledged Keller’s many contributions to the institution he now leads.
“My view of Dr. Keller’s time is that he built this institution into what it is,” O’Harrow said. “It was a far smaller, lower-profile institution when he took over in the ‘90s. He’s really built it into this wonderful institution. He’s expanded it at least two or three times. Now it’s 100,000 square feet, which is a good size for an institution. And he raised the reputation to no end, because of all the traveling exhibitions that were brought in.
“My hope is to honor his legacy by continuing to bring in exhibitions from around the world, keep the international angle to the museum. But I would also like to honor the historical California responsibility that we have.”
O’Harrow, 55, is going on 12 weeks at the Bowers, so it’s not like he’s brand new. But he’s still “in listening mode.” He leads a staff of about 50 employees, with a budget of between $5 million and $6 million.
“In my experience, it’s a perfect size,” he remarked. “You know everyone, it’s big enough to get things done, but small enough to have good interaction with the public. If you’re too big, you become bureaucratic. Then you become all about yourself.”
The new president understands that the Bowers sits in the heart of Santa Ana, which is 76.7% Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. He has made his home in Santa Ana, because he believes it’s important to live in the city and community where he works. And he’s already had meetings with Mayor Valerie Amezcua and council members from Santa Ana.
“I think it’s incredibly important to have exhibitions that reflect the community,” he said. That includes Latinos and the vast Vietnamese population that resides in Orange County, the largest outside of Vietnam itself.
“For the first time in my life, I’m seeing all these Vietnamese people. Where I was raised, I never saw any. My mother didn’t teach me Vietnamese. She believed that French is the language of the future.” He said this with a laugh.
First Things First
O’Harrow’s top priority is to hire a senior curator, he said. The last full-time curator employed by the Bowers was Armand Labbé, who passed in April 2005.
“I’m thinking of bringing in a senior curator with experience,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to be done on the permanent collection side. Since we lost our senior curator about 20 years ago, we haven’t done a lot on the permanent collection side, or in the historic California wing. Not only is that the genesis of our organization, but it’s also where students go through. We need to pay attention to that area.”
Indeed, the inattention has had its costs. In January 2008, agents from the FBI raided the Bowers, seeking artifacts that might have been smuggled illegally from Thailand and protected American Indian lands. That incident was a dark mark in a recent history otherwise punctuated by many well-received blockbusters, including “Secret World of the Forbidden City,” “Tibet: Treasures from the Roof of the World,” the Dead Sea Scrolls, the skeletal remains of Lucy, “Terra Cotta Warriors” and Egyptian mummies and treasures from the British Museum.
O’Harrow believes that most of the objects in question have been returned or handed over, but he’s not 100% sure. The Bowers has more than 100,000 objects in its permanent collection.
“Trying to figure out what we have in all of these objects is an awesome, huge responsibility,” he said. “It’s going to require some experts. And I’ve got some plans for that. I’m bringing in an expert in December. That person is going to be leading this area.”
O’Harrow said he “likes to do the right thing,” and “I only believe in following laws.”
“I’m the CEO. If laws have been violated, we address them immediately – it’s extremely important. Addressing issues like this is the right thing to do.”
O’Harrow comes to the Bowers at an auspicious time for the institution. The shackles of the COVID pandemic are nearly completely cast off, and the museum recently opened two new exhibitions: “The Power of Photography,” featuring iconic images compiled by prominent collector and gallerist Peter Fetterman; and “Beyond the Great Wave: Works by Hokusai from the British Museum.” The photography show runs through Jan. 14, 2024, and the Hokusai exhibit runs through Jan. 7.
A prolific painter and printmaker, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was a Japanese artist of the Edo period. He is best known for the woodblock print series “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji,” which includes the iconic print, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” aka “The Great Wave.”
“Hokusai is one of the artists I’ve done research on in the past,” O’Harrow said. “It’s an area of interest to me. I have done a number of projects that have involved Great Waves from Hokusai, and copies of those prints. If someone said, ‘What’s one work of art you could bring?’ I would say ‘The Great Wave.’”
The Bowers also recently received a $1 million donation from the Mary and John Tu Foundation, which will help support the expansion of its education and exhibition programs.
And O’Harrow – who has two adult sons and an artist wife who still resides in the south of France – appears to have the full support of the Bowers’ Board of Governors. He was the unanimous choice out of five candidates by an eight-person committee of board members and staff.
“He is an exceptional leader with a deep passion for the arts, and his vision aligns perfectly with our museum’s mission,” said Anne Shih, chairwoman of the Board of Governors, in a statement. “As we honor the incredible legacy left by Dr. Peter C. Keller, we are eager to embrace this new era of leadership and continued growth under Seán’s guidance.”
O’Harrow says he’s eager to help bring the Bowers into its next chapter as well.
“What’s really great about Orange County – it’s a place people want to come and visit and move to. There are always new people to come and meet and talk to. I think we’ve just scratched the surface, in terms of connecting to people in OC.
“We’re seeing an uptick on attendance. It can always be higher. I do believe partnerships are important – working with other cultural institutions is one way of addressing issues (of attendance). We want to keep in touch with the community, understand what they want and need.
“I think the art museum is a real experience. It’s a multidimensional experience. The internet and other forms of delivery are wonderful, and we do engage with those. We have programs that are online. But we will do everything that we can to get people in person. We’ll be partnering with other organizations to figure out what’s next.”