The Laguna Art Museum has scaled back its budget and ambitions since gaining its independence from the Orange County Museum of Art a year ago today, but its backers say the bluff-side institution’s stature in the community has grown.
When the hotly contested 1996 merger between the Laguna Art Museum and the Newport Harbor Art Museum to create OCMA unraveled last year, the Laguna museum regrouped. Its trustees chose to operate on about half of the pre-merger annual budget and with a fraction of the previous staff. The Laguna museum now runs on $615,000 a year, with three full-time employees.
Exhibition reviews have been mixed in the past year, and the museum hasn’t reclaimed the national prominence it enjoyed in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s for adventuresome shows and touring exhibits.
Still, the leaner organization, which reportedly had been on the brink of insolvency for several years before the merger, is financially sound, thanks in large part to greater support from the city and its residents, officials said.
“The town has really awoken to the museum,” said director Bolton Colburn. And “this institution is involved with the community in a way it never has been before.”
The 80-year-old museum, which reestablished autonomy after roughly nine months as a satellite under OCMA control, has long been perceived as central to the city’s identity as an arts colony whose summer arts festivals draw thousands of visitors annually.
Though OCMA obtained Laguna’s original charter in the merger, Colburn and Laguna museum trustees insist that its heritage belongs with their institution. Through an agreement with OCMA last year, the Laguna museum got back half of its pre-merger endowment, access to its large permanent collection, the deed to the building and the right to the Laguna Art Museum name.
“Laguna Art Museum stands for a very specific thing,” Colburn said. “It represents this community, a point of view and a history that can’t be transferred somewhere else.”
Indeed, fear of losing the museum resulted in the renewed community support. According to Colburn, museum membership, now numbering 1,675, in the city of Laguna Beach has been steadily rising, up about 10% since before the merger.
Meanwhile, unprecedented municipal support materialized last year in the form a $75,000 allotment from the city, which had traditionally given the institution about $2,000 annually.
Laguna Beach Mayor Steve Dicterow said this week that a second gift of that size is unlikely. But, he added, “I would expect it to be five figures.”
The institution, which plans to ask the city for a six-figure sum, will need it. Colburn hopes to hire a full-time fund-raiser in May and a full-time education coordinator this summer.
Plans also call for more capital improvements. The city funds helped pay for a new roof, and the museum just got a new coat of paint. (Its pink patina has been covered by a sandy color intended to better reflect its coastal home.) The building still needs air-conditioning repairs, new skylights and other work, Colburn said.
Artistic initiatives include a “renewed commitment” to the museum’s mission through scholarly exhibits exploring uncharted aspects of California art, historical and contemporary, he said. It will cap its 80th anniversary celebration in October with “Art Colonies and American Impressionism,” a guest-curated show and 114-page catalog designed to explore the contributions of art colonies such as Laguna Beach and others around the nation.
“We’re in the middle of a fund drive on that show right now,” Colburn said, “and we have about $45,000 in commitments in hand.”
In the works for 2000, he said, are a major exploration of surf culture and a rare joint effort with the Huntington Beach Arts Center on an exhibit, to take place at both institutions, showcasing contemporary landscape artists.
“This would force each of our constituencies to mix a little more,” said the center’s curator, Tyler Stallings, “and hopefully expand both of our audiences.”
That’s a significant goal for the Laguna museum. It hopes a membership campaign to be launched today will reclaim some of the out-of-town members it lost in the merger battle and its aftermath.
Orange County native and longtime Laguna museum visitor Meg Linton, curator of exhibitions at the Cal State Long Beach University Art Museum, said the next few years will be critical for the institution.
“It’s going to be a hard transition,” she said, “because there was this idea of what the Laguna museum was, and now it has to reinvent itself.”