Laguna Art Museum’s new executive director shares her inspirations and plans for future programs at this local cultural landmark.
By Sharon Stello
Julie Perlin Lee began her career at Bowers Museum in Santa Ana as a graduate student and left as vice president of collections and exhibition development. She continued to climb the ranks, leading Catalina Island Museum for nearly five years and becoming executive director of Laguna Art Museum in May, replacing Malcolm Warner, who retired in late 2020.
Lee, whose family has resided in Orange County for several generations, grew up in Costa Mesa and Irvine before attending California State University, Fullerton. Reflecting on her start at Bowers Museum, Lee says she appreciates the partnerships cultivated with museums around the globe.
“I had the opportunity to increase understanding between countries and cultures and to foster appreciation for the innumerable ways in which people express themselves through art,” she says.
Wherever she works, Lee is most proud of “seeing people completely elated or even moved to tears from an encounter with an artwork, exhibition or museum experience.”
While serving as Catalina Island Museum’s executive director, she lived on the island in Avalon with her husband, David Michael Lee, and their two children, who are now 7 and 12. David teaches art and runs the gallery at Coastline College’s Newport Beach campus.
Lee says Catalina Island is “a magical place” that attracts visitors from all over. “I especially loved getting to know the families that had been living or visiting the island for well over a century,” she says, adding that she also appreciated the clean air, starry nights, golf carts and the safe and friendly neighborhoods.
Lee and her family are now living in Corona del Mar, but looking for a home in Laguna Beach. “I love that Laguna has a strong inward and outward identity,” she says. “It has a small-town vibe, but is known all around the world.” She also appreciates its deep roots in the arts. “With over 100 years of history, I love that the museum has helped drive the vision of Laguna Beach,” she says.
Lee plans to help build up an endowment, increase programming to reach broader audiences and raise the museum’s recognition beyond Southern California by collaborating with other institutions and scholars.
What drew you to Laguna Art Museum?
Julie Perlin Lee: Laguna Art Museum is uniquely poised to share the artistic contributions of the Southern California region. Its origin as an artist-founded museum is important to me as well. As someone from Orange County, I have personal ties to the museum and I see many opportunities to raise its reputation even higher.
Can you give us any hints about upcoming exhibits?
This year’s “Art and Nature” exhibition will feature the work of Rebeca Méndez, who is presently the chair of UCLA’s Design Media Arts Department. … Her immersive video installation will … focus on the protection and vitality of our Pacific Ocean. … Far off, but still worth touting, is the 2024 Pacific Standard Time exhibition “Particles and Waves: Southern California Abstraction and Modern Physics” that will explore where scientific research and artistic experimentation intersect.
What do you like about art in general?
The art historian in me loves the way art speaks to a specific moment or place in time. I believe that artists have always played a critical role in how we explore and understand our world. I also love that anyone can connect [with], be inspired or even repulsed by art even if they do not have an art background.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I grow heirloom vegetables and flowers from seed, and start and end each day in the garden. [And] I love films from today and yesteryear. I probably watch 15 to 20 films a month, mostly on The Criterion Channel. [Also,] no surprise, I love visiting museums, collections and historic sites of all types. … I am infinitely fascinated by the human desire to build, create, collect and share.
What’s the last book you read that inspired you?
I am usually reading several books at once, but the one that inspired me most recently is “Humankind: A Hopeful History” by Dutch historian Rutger Bregman. The book outlines ways in which humans have risen to be their best in the darkest of times. Even though we are hard-wired to focus on and spread bad news, the altruistic and cooperative side of humankind almost always shines brighter.