Vim, vigor, vibrancy at Laguna Beach’s favorite 104-year-old art institution

Laguna Art Museum executive director Julie Perlin Lee with John Sonsini‘s oil painting, “Francisco & Raul.” Photo by Barbara McMurray

By Barbara McMurray, Special to The Independent

Laguna Art Museum welcomed Julie Perlin Lee to its helm as executive director in May 2021. Fifteen months on, she has proven herself an energetic seeker of collaborations with many area institutions, including Boys & Girls Club of Central Orange Coast, Laguna Beach Pride 365, Laguna Beach Unified School District, Laguna Plein Air Painters Association, Laguna Beach Parents Club, Laguna Beach Live!, Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center, Coast Film Festival, and many others.

Creating lively connections with all facets of the community is essential to the 104-year-old museum, the Orange County native said. With her husband David, an artist and professor, their two children, and the family cat, Brian, she moved back to the mainland in 2021 after five years in Avalon. There, she served as executive director of the Catalina Island Museum. Before that, she spent eight years at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.

Laguna Beach residents have impressed Perlin Lee with their passion for maintaining their community’s reputation as an art colony with exceptional natural beauty.

She concedes that the pandemic was rough on the museum, and enticing visitors back into its gallery spaces has been challenging. She happily reports that LAM is now welcoming schools back for tours and art making and returning to classrooms for art education at Laguna’s two elementary schools. Volunteer docents have given 248 tours, connecting visitors with 14 exhibitions and Laguna artist Gerard Stripling’s public installation.

“We are in a period of growth,” Perlin Lee said. “And our donor base is growing with us. We are energized by the fact that last fiscal year, 28% of donations came from first-time givers.”

She hopes to interest donors of all financial capacities, from those who want to help provide one student with supplies to complete an art class to donors who can fund one of LAM’s three teaching artists. Growing the museum’s endowment continues to be a focus to ensure its future as a permanent haven for art and creativity. She credits “an enthusiastic and future-forward board that is helping me build a new group of philanthropic supporters.”

She and the board of directors fastidiously reported LAM’s financial and operational activities, resulting in a Platinum Seal of Transparency award by Candid, an organization that tracks philanthropic finance.

LAM, which celebrated its 100th year in 2018, has scheduled exhibitions through 2025 focusing on artworks from the early 20th century to the present. They will be a mix of artists exemplary of modern (Jay DeFeo), contemporary (Shepard Fairey), and early California (Joseph Kleitsch) art periods.

“We really enjoy working with artists of today to interpret works of the past,” Perlin Lee said. “A recent successful example of this took place when John Sonsini, considered one of the most important portrait painters in the United States, eloquently offered his perspective on our current exhibition of the once overlooked artist Francis De Erdely.”

LAM is also committed to recognizing Laguna Beach artists like William Mortenson, who had his school of photography in town.

“We will share the exciting exhibitions in development that will bring recognition to our community and the museum,” Perlin Lee said.

LAM’s 10th Art & Nature Festival in November will feature artist Rebeca Méndez, whose immersive, 360-degree film titled The Sea Around Us will be on display in LAM’s largest gallery. It will be a stunning journey through the sea, from life at the surface to the sea floor of the Catalina Channel. There, scientists are working to understand the impact of thousands of barrels of DDT — a powerfully toxic pesticide banned in 1972 — poured directly into the ocean from massive tank barges decades ago.

Famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle will deliver a keynote address. Artist Kelly Berg will draw museumgoers outdoors with Pyramidions, a series of alluring pyramids placed in and around the beach and Heisler Park for visitors to discover and explore. Each pyramidion will highlight Laguna’s unique geology. The festival’s artworks will be an interactive call to cherish and protect our natural environment.

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