Despite its lengthy history, Laguna Art Museum, a longtime cultural pillar of the local community, is just getting started.
By Ashley Ryan
The story of Laguna Art Museum dates back more than 100 years, to the founding of the Laguna Beach Art Association in 1918—a move that was pivotal in transforming our beach town into the art hub it is today. The organization was originally composed of prominent California artists, including plein air painters Anna Hills and Edgar Payne, and was officially designated a museum in the 1970s.
“Because of its history, Laguna Art Museum has had the opportunity to collect and exhibit artworks from every decade since California became a state,” notes Julie Perlin Lee, who took over the role of executive director of the museum a year ago. “… In addition to our historical background, what makes our museum so unique is our location. … Visitors from all over the world come to relax and enjoy the beauty of Laguna Beach, and the vibe of our museum reflects those attitudes.”
So dress up or dress down—the focus here is all on the art. In fact, Lee hopes to reach 100,000 people this year, through exhibits, programming, artist-driven projects and even virtual activities. Already since Lee has arrived at the museum, she has enacted change, increasing the number of events held at the venue as well as adding new names to the staff roster in an effort to enhance the visitor experience further.
Victoria Zagarino Gerard was placed in a brand-new role, as the museum’s deputy director, allowing her to play a part in everything from creating strategic plans to strengthening the organization’s relationship with the public. Two new curatorial fellows, Jean Stern and Rochelle Steiner, have also been added to the team since Lee took over; they will assist with programming, Stern focusing on early California art and Steiner specializing in contemporary pieces.
“I am focused on ensuring the extraordinary efforts that have brought the museum to this moment are continued by building a financially sustainable future. We are a mostly member-supported museum seeking support at all levels, but are especially in need of finding partners who want to join me in taking Laguna Art Museum to an entirely new level,” Lee adds. “… Another goal of ours is to create an active art acquisitions program to continue to purposefully grow our permanent collection with outstanding examples of California art.”
A core component of every museum is its exhibits, and that’s definitely something that has drawn much of the staff’s attention as of late. Often, Lee says, the Laguna museum will seek out artists who have established careers, but haven’t had their work shown much. “Many of these artists have been in important group shows, but haven’t had the opportunity to display their work in a singular museum exhibition,” she explains. “We also highlight local artists [and] local art movements that we know will appeal to a very broad audience.”
Aside from the art itself, the museum has secured its position as a pillar of the arts community through educational programming, activities for children, musical events, philanthropic fundraisers and more. “We are proud to be the go-to center for the arts in Laguna Beach,” Lee notes, “and we are grateful that we can help draw tourists to our community through our outstanding art opportunities.”
While high-quality exhibitions are the main draw, Laguna Art Museum also offers educational opportunities, fundraising galas and special events throughout the year.
Those seeking unique experiences need look no further than Laguna Art Museum. An essential event is the annual Art & Nature festival, a citywide campaign celebrating the wonders of the natural world and how they intersect with art. “We are proud to act as that bridge, especially at a time when environmental concerns are top of mind,” says Julie Perlin Lee, executive director of the museum. Local galleries host their own displays around the same time, bringing the city together to celebrate creativity. The 2022 iteration will focus on the health of the nearby Pacific Ocean, courtesy of an immersive project by Mexican-American artist Rebeca Méndez. Also of note are the concerts that Laguna Beach Live helps coordinate for Live at the Museum, a monthly performance showcasing talented musicians in the Steele Gallery. And, coming up, the museum will participate in “Pacific Standard Time,” for which it has been awarded a grant toward the 2024 edition of this regional exhibition series, focusing on the convergence of art and science.
Not all of the educational programming at the museum is aimed at youth—but much of it is. “We create art curriculum that aligns with school standards and our … collections,” Lee says. School groups from kindergarten through high school visit for hourlong tours that explore pieces on display, with trained docents inviting conversation in order for children to “make connections between art, their identities and lived experiences.” Afterward, they visit the Lab at LAM, a creative space where they can make projects relating to the discussion at hand. In January, the museum also added thematic tour options that center around sociocultural conversations. Additionally, the museum currently offers Lit to Life sessions with story time, an art project and mindfulness exercises on the fourth Saturday of each month. Admission to the museum is also free for those 12 and under.
Supporting the Cause
One of the most prominent events held at the museum each year is the California Cool Art Auction, which happens to be the organization’s biggest annual fundraiser. This year alone, the event brought in more than $400,000. “The money raised through the auction directly supports our education initiatives in the community,” Lee notes. But California Cool represents much more than that as well, she says. “[It] connects our supportive artist community with art collectors, helping to strengthen the relationship between artist-public-museum. … Plus, it brings great energy and [it] is a lot of fun to see such a diverse … [group] of artworks and artists gathered for a great cause.” In addition to this beloved annual event, locals can show their support by becoming a member of the museum which includes unlimited admission, discounts on ticketed programs and much more.