Bolton Colburn resigns after 14 years as Laguna Art Museum’s director

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Bolton Colburn is leaving the Laguna Art Museum after 24 years — including the past 14 as its director.

His resignation, effective May 13, is voluntary, Colburn and Robert Hayden III, president of the museum’s board, said Monday, and reflects no internal friction at the seaside institution that’s devoted to California art and traces its roots to 1918, when a group of painters in the Laguna Beach art colony formed an association that eventually spawned a gallery, then a museum.

Colburn, 57, began his museum career in the early 1980s at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art (now the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego) after testing the waters on the professional surfing circuit. He now aims to pursue “ideas I’d like to accomplish in the sphere of visual art” that he didn’t want to divulge but that he said could involve writing projects and exhibitions. His wife, Susan M. Anderson, is a former Lugana Art Museum curator who is now a freelance curator and art historian. They have sons ages 11 and 15.

Hayden said the board will hire a search consultant to help it find a new director, with no deadline set to fill the job.


“In many respects we’re looking for somebody with qualities similar to Bolton. We like the idea of an art scholar running the museum,” Hayden said, adding that good community-relations skills also are paramount. In the meantime, Hayden himself will oversee the staff; he said he can take time from his job as chief financial officer of a family-run medical technology company to have a daily, part-time presence at the museum. Colburn earned $99,000 in 2008-09, according to the museum’s most recent available tax return. Attendance that year was 44,000, according to the return.

Hayden said that since he joined the board five years ago, Colburn “has been a mentor to me and taught me about how the museum and the art community work. To lose that is a tough thing.”

The transition comes at an opportune time, Hayden and Colburn said. Under a multi-year, $375,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation, museum officials recently adopted a three-year plan to strengthen internal operations by upgrading computer systems in ways that will help it build its audience and fundraising capacity. Now, implementing the plan will be up to the next director.

Hayden said there is no desire to change the direction of the museum’s shows. “We think the exhibitions are exceptional and shine a light on artists in Southern California.” Upcoming shows include a look at the New York-based artist Isamu Noguchi, “Noguchi: California Legacy,” opening June 12, and “Best Kept Secret: UCI and the Development of Contemporary Art in Southern California, 1964-1971,” opening Oct. 30. The show about UC Irvine’s contribution is the Laguna museum’s entry in the Pacific Standard Time initiative, a regional effort led by the J. Paul Getty Trust in which more than 50 museums and galleries will examine aspects of how art developed in Southern California from 1945 to 1980.

Colburn said his “one big frustration” was not being able to make headway toward a major renovation and expansion that he thinks the museum needs to exploit its striking clifftop location. He said the poor economy blunted aspirations for what he envisions as a $10 milllion to $15 million project that would “really transform” the museum by increasing its nearly 9,000 square feet of galleries, carving an event space with a picturesque ocean view out of existing offices, and adding a small auditorium.

That sort of major capital project “is definitely an issue we’re aware of, but it’s not a top priority” because the museum needs to build up its fundraising capabilities first, said Hayden, the board president.

While the Laguna Art Museum continued to feature exhibitions on the early 20th century California art that led to its founding, Colburn’s tenure also explored how more recent pop culture trends intersected with art. Among the shows he initiated and co-curated were “Kustom Kulture: Von Dutch, Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth, Robert Williams and Others,” a 1993 look at the influence of custom cars and hot rods on the art scene, “The Art History of Surfing” (2003) and “In the Land of Retinal Delights: the Juxtapoz Factor,” a 2008 survey of the “lowbrow art” aesthetic heralded in Juxtapoz magazine.

Colburn became the Laguna Art Museum’s director in 1997 after perhaps the most turbulent episode in its history, a short-lived mid-1990s merger with the Newport Harbor Art Museum that created a new institution, the Orange County Museum of Art. When the two merged, Colburn moved from the Laguna museum’s staff to senior curator of the new, combined museum. But when arts backers in Laguna Beach decided the new institution was unlikely to serve their community’s needs or properly acknowledge its art legacy, the merger came unwound and the Laguna Art Museum was reestablished with Colburn in charge as director. The Newport Beach-based OCMA went its own way.

Colburn said Monday that he is neither related to nor knows of Brian Colburn, a former managing director of the Pasadena Playhouse whom officials of the Intiman Theatre in Seattle blamed for flawed fiscal stewardship after his sudden resignation last fall. The debt-ridden Intiman recently canceled its 2011 season after just one production.


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— Mike Boehm