The Laguna Art Museum and the Laguna College of Art and Design both announced leadership changes this week.
In a surprise, the museum’s longtime executive director, Bolton Colburn resigned, effective May 13, with no immediate successor identified.
In an anticipated announcement, Jonathan Burke, a vice president and fine arts dean at the college, was selected as president to succeed Dennis Power, who will retire in June. Burke assumes the post July 1, selected from 50-applicant pool. (See sidebar).
Colburn, at the museum’s helm for 14 years, said he is leaving voluntarily. “The future of the museum looks solid and it’s an opportune time for a change in leadership,” he said. “It’s time for someone with a fresh perspective to take over.”
Board President Robert Hayden III will lead the search for a new director and oversee internal museum operations in the interim. “Staff is going to work with oversight from the board and follow the same direction that Bolton has set forth,” he said.
Other museum trustees declined to comment, deferring to Hayden.
While a search firm has yet to be hired, Hayden outlined a job description for a successor. “We are looking for an inspiring leader, someone who is academically grounded and not just an administrator, someone who will be able to engage with the local community and make them feel like part of Laguna Art Museum,” he said.
“We may be 90 years old but are in many ways a new institution and now, thanks to the $375,000 Irvine Foundation Grant, we will be able to move to the next level,” said Hayden, a five-year board member and chair of the Historical Art Council.
Colburn, 57, has no immediate job plans but hopes to stay in Laguna Beach with his wife Susan Anderson, an art historian and freelance curator, and their two sons ages 11 and 15.
In surveying his accomplishments, Colburn takes pride in expanding the museum’s permanent collection and in staging noted exhibitions such as “Kustom Kulture: Von Dutch, Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth, Robert Williams and Others,” (1993) and “Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing,” (2003) among others.
His greatest disappointment? “I do think this facility needs a thorough renovation. To have seen that through would have been great,” he said.
Colburn took the helm of the museum after a 1995 merger unraveled with the former Newport Harbor Art Museum. A curator before the merger, Colburn was appointed executive director by G. Ray Kerciu, president of the newly constituted post-merger board.
The average tenure of a museum director is six years, said Kerciu, a retired Cal State Fullerton art teacher and Laguna Beach resident. “Bolton stayed for 14 and did an honorable job but his fire had begun to wane,” he said. “After fighting so many battles, you just wear down.”
Kerciu, who has not visited the museum in three years, said he intends to get involved in moving the museum forward. “I hope that we can be influential (again) and that the board will listen to the people in town. No one wants the museum to become a dinosaur.”
Kerciu also suggested that the board take its time in choosing a new director, to re-evaluate its mission and do a thorough national search.
Like most museum exhibitions, Colburn’s tenure drew mixed reviews.
Gene Cooper, guest curator of “Wayne Thiebaud: 70 years of Painting,” a 2007-08 Laguna Art Museum exhibition, was critical of Colburn’s management style and tepid leadership.
“He slowed the museum’s development and did not have the breadth of knowledge a museum director should have,” said Cooper, art historian and Cal State Long Beach professor emeritus, who saw Colburn micro-managing internal operations but failing to connect with potential donors and board members by not conveying a clear mission.
“Public contact was not his strength. He could never inspire anyone to believe that the museum was actually going somewhere,” said Cooper, a local resident since 1969 who was involved in battling the merger between the Newport and Laguna museums.
By contrast, former Laguna Arm Museum curator Tyler Stallings praised Colburn for elevating exhibitions with scholarly support by publishing extensive catalogues and backing the ideas and initiatives of curators. “The longer I am in the field, the more I appreciate how Bolton shaped my career by taking a risk and hiring someone only experienced in contemporary and pop culture,” said Stallings, 42, director of the Sweeney Art Center at UC Riverside and LAM’s chief curator between 1999 and 2006.
“Bolton did not just stage shows to get people in the door,” he said.