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OCCCA: "20/20"

by Roberta Carasso

Installation shots of "20/20":

(Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, Orange County) Ensconced in Santa Ana's Artist Village surrounded by galleries, artists studios, live theater, coffee houses, restaurants and bookstores, OCCCA finally realizes its dream of a permanent home. This comes after twenty years of showcasing 800 artists and 300-guest artists in one temporary space after another. What has kept OCCCA going and what could other artist cooperatives learn from it?

Artists have long established cooperatives to independently exhibit their work and form nurturing communities of like minds where they could freely develop and try out new ideas. It is rare, however, that an artist cooperative not only sustains itself over the years, but becomes an established force within a community. Yet that is what OCCCA has done.

The inaugural exhibition, titled 20/20, is a twenty-year survey of work by current and alumni members. It is also a celebration of its recognized value by the city of Santa Ana.

OCCCA's philosophy is easily detected in the art it exhibits. Members have an equal voice, work is never censored, and member artists are never subject to a reigning aesthetic.

Its 6,300 square feet of exhibition space resides in the renovated Parker's Garage, originally constructed in 1916. 20/20 presents a diverse range of art that reflects many current trends, from Barbara Berk's sound installation, Lynn Kubasek’s installation, architectural wall studies by Frank Miller, Barbara Thompson’s and Eileen Shahbazian's sculpture, Connie Sasso's assemblage, Ann Anson's prints, Sandy Deek's and Robert Eisenberg’s painting, Jackie Ramirez' and Clayton Spada’s photographs, murals by Patrick Merrill, Nancy Mooslin's abstraction, and Jorge Dubin's classical realism.

OCCCA was launched in 1980 by five senior MFA students of CSU Fullerton, one of them being Suvan Geer, who exhibits in the current show. Because of the then dearth of venues in Orange County they recognized they would have few viable opportunities to show their work locally. Alhena Scott spearheaded the project and set the group on its course.

Scott pushed for an organization that would sustain itself rather than be dependent on government grants and subject to artistic opinions of others. Also, to circumvent the myriad limitations they faced, the founders enlisted the muscle of established artists. George Herms and Tony DeLap, both involved in the current exhibition, were among those who supported OCCCA's nascent efforts.

From the construction of its first gallery space, the original artists, and all those who followed, learned, first-hand, the intricate details of arts management how-to: presenting slides, installing shows, preparing agendas, keeping books, gallery sitting, and the other nitty gritty details of being a professional artist. Over the years, each group of artists formed solid friendships, which remain the underpinnings of OCCCA's support system.

One of OCCCA's strengths, which made the city of Santa Ana take notice and give them their new home, is the community educational outreach program. Along with all the other duties of running an arts organization, artists are involved in teaching in the Santa Ana Schools, from elementary to high school. With cuts in most school art programs, OCCCA's presence became an important asset. Because Santa Ana boasts so many artists, a Santa Ana Council of Arts and Culture was formed by Don Cribb, also a member of OCCCA, who single-handedly showed Santa Ana government the value of art to the community.

Its ups and downs, trials and errors, incoming and outgoing artist members, and repeated moves to various gallery spaces, molded what OCCCA is today. It’s backbone, and the one element that keeps it vital, is the tenacious artistic spirit of succeding generations of its visionary leaders. The original and subsequent members realized the altruism of running an artistic cooperative; that it was not only for individual career enhancement. When artists work together and sustain their dream, significant creative benefits can result.