Opinion: Green Light

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Tracing into the Sunset: Malcolm Warner’s Art & Nature Legacy

Malcolm Warner, the erudite director of Laguna Art Museum, is readying to retire into the sunset at the end of this year. The spectacular rainbow hued, wispy, mesmerizing “Sunset Trace” outdoor installation at the south end of Heisler Park last month was a fitting swan song, spotlighting his brilliantly conceived Art & Nature program that has been offered annually since 2013. Of all of LAM’s excellent exhibits over the decades that our family has been a museum member, Art & Nature has impacted me the most.  In trying to figure out why, I spoke (in an outdoor, socially distanced setting) with Warner, the program’s creator, who credited his LAM associate Marinta Skupin for her work with the artists and masterful handling of permits and related matters that facilitate this program.

He perceptively told me that beyond our families, “Lagunans care most about two things: nature and art.  It’s reflected in the history of Laguna Beach.” That’s what drew some early settlers here. “That’s what identifies our town,” from the late 19th century to today. He’s right. My wife and I moved here in 1974 precisely for those two reasons.

I asked if his thinking about Art & Nature derived from his concern about environmental despoliation.  He said that while he’s concerned about climate change and ocean ecology he has studiously avoided being “preachy” or politicizing the program.  He’s obviously been focused on art for its own sake, his passion coming through clearly.  To an environmental activist like myself, his response called to mind a quotation I read long ago from famed Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky: “Beauty will save the world.”  With apologies to the renowned writer, I think that political will is even more important.  That said, Art & Nature has always visually inspired me to keep doing what I’m doing environmentally. 

When asked what direction he would like to see Art & Nature take in the future, Warner paused and thought. He then replied that he wished to see the program bring in internationally acclaimed artists.  “Andy Goldsworthy,” he said, “would be such a figure.” An Englishman by birth, Warner was drawn to artists from his homeland who had gained world acclaim. Goldsworthy, who is a British sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist, would fit the bill quite nicely, Warner opined. I later Googled Goldsworthy and found his work had been exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the de Young Museum (also in that city), and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

I liked the fact that Warner thought big as the director of a small but ambitious and high- class local art museum. That range of vision is consonant with the globalized world in which we now live. When LAM was founded in 1918 Laguna would have more than another half century before it would enter Sister City relationships with Menton (France), San José del Cabo (Mexico), and St. Ives (England). In our travels abroad, our family has found that Laguna Beach seems well-known. When we attended the 2010 Shanghai Expo, for example, we saw several Chinese fairgoers (whom I photographed) wearing tee-shirts with Laguna Beach logos. Given this outsized presence, Warner’s suggestion that serious thought should be given to internationalizing our town’s art treasures, exhibits, and installations makes perfect sense in 21st century Laguna Beach.

LAM’s Sunset Trace installation, a capstone of Warner’s remarkable legacy as mentor and steward of our art colony, should stir our imaginations about how our town might inspire others around the globe to see beauty and possibilities that can only enhance the human prospect.

“I hope that in 2022 there will be great fanfare around Art & Nature,” in celebration of the program’s first ten years, Warner said at the close of our very rich conversation.

Tom Osborne and his wife, Ginger, are leaders of the Laguna chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which works to put a price on carbon. Contact him at [email protected]   

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