A new era begins at LAM

Starting Sunday, Laguna Art Museum visitors will pay $5 less for tickets across the board.

The unveiling of the museum's spring 2012 exhibitions then will officially coincide with a revamped ticketing and hours of operation policy instituted by Malcolm Warner, who took over Jan. 3 as LAM's new executive director.

LAM will charge $7 for general admission, and instead of operating from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, the museum will close to the public on Wednesdays. LAM will keep those same hours on weekend days as well as on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays.

But the museum also will stay open till 9 p.m. every Thursday — not just on the first Thursday of the month, when Laguna Beach's First Thursdays Art Walk happens.

The museum has already implemented another change under Warner: LAM now offers free admission between special exhibits, such as during the days leading up to the "Victor Hugo Zayas" and "The Postwar Era" shows, which will open Sunday and run through April 29.

The changes are part of the 58-year-old Englishman's plan to make the museum more accessible to the wider public and be engaged with the Laguna Beach's arts community and schools, while also trying to raise LAM's excellence and ambition in its exhibition programming.

"We're almost there," he said in an interview on Feb. 14. "I just would like to get to the point where we've raised our profile to the extent that people immediately ... think of us as the showcase for California art of any kind."

He started spreading his message while presiding over the museum's annual benefit art auction Feb. 4. Warner told a packed house at LAM that he wanted to take it from being known as "a museum of California art" to being known as "the museum of California art."

Three days later, he repeated that message to the City Council.

"We want to raise its national profile," Warner said at the council meeting. "I and the board [of trustees] are one in this but, at the same time, we're very keen not to do that at the expense of being responsive to Laguna Beach as a community.

"That's very important to us. We want to be accessible and open and friendly to everyone in the city."

During a getting-to-know you interview at his office a week later, Warner expanded on his stated goals and vision for LAM, and also revealed his intention to work toward thawing relations with the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) in neighboring Newport Beach. These had iced over after a merger between LAM and the Newport Harbor Art Museum — now known as OCMA — collapsed in the mid-1990s.

"I've been making a point of trying to meet as many people who do have an interest in the museum as possible, and to listen to them because I think one of the things I should be doing over the first few months that I am here is just doing a lot of listening," said Warner, who wore a cardigan over an Oxford shirt unbuttoned at the collar.

Warner came to LAM after a decade at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, where he served most recently as deputy director and previously, for 18 months, as acting director. Yet after living and working in the United States for 23 years and being married to an American since 1988, he still hasn't lost his English accent. He continues to hold a green card but said he is thinking of becoming naturalized.

Warner was born in Aldershot, England. He did both his undergraduate and graduate studies at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, where he did his doctoral dissertation on John Everett Millais, a 19th-century British painter who was a leader in the pre-Raphaelite artistic movement. According to his bio from Laguna Art Museum, Warner is an authority on Millais.

Stateside, before joining the Kimbell as a senior curator in 2001, Warner worked as the curator of European art at the San Diego Museum of Art, and as senior curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art at Yale University.

Since arriving in Laguna in early January, Warner has rented a place about a half-mile from the museum. His wife and two teenage children stayed on in Fort Worth but will join him at the end of the school year. His daughter is a high school senior, and Warner hopes to enroll his son at Laguna Beach High School.

In Laguna, Warner replaces Bolton Colburn, who resigned last spring as LAM's executive director after a 24-year career there. Colburn now heads the Surfing Heritage Foundation in San Clemente.

Although Warner's schooling, training and expertise lie in classical British art, LAM Board President Robert Hayden III said his limited experience with California art wasn't seen as a discrepancy in hiring him.

According to Hayden, the museum was looking to recruit someone who could bring "a wider view" to the museum and put the museum on the national and international map, rather than someone who specialized only in California art.

"That world view outweighs his limited understanding of California art history," Hayden said.

The last time that Warner dealt with California art first-hand was in 1994, when he organized an exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art showcasing the work of painter, muralist and printmaker Harry Sternberg.

Sternberg died at age 97 in December 2001, according to his obituary in the Los Angeles Times.

"Certainly, in my interceding jobs at Yale and the Kimbell Art Museum, there wasn't any particular reason for me to be working with California art, but I've always kept up a kind of long-range interest in it," Warner said. "A big part of the attraction of coming to this position was that California art seems so exciting and fresh and new now, and so ripe for discoveries and rediscoveries."

While contemporary California art excites Warner, he said he wants to balance LAM's strength in that area with its more traditional strength in more classical California art dating to the museum's origins in 1918, when Laguna Beach was a colony of plein air painters.

As part of his plan to raise the museum's level of ambition and scope, Warner hopes to organize an exhibit for the coming fall that would showcase the finest pieces from the museum's large collection, which is largely stored off-site.

As for LAM's relations with the Orange County Museum of Art, Warner mentioned that he had met his counterpart at OCMA, Dennis Szakacs, and told him about his intention to work together for both museums' benefit.

"We have quite different slices of the art pie that we've served ourselves, so there's no need for rivalry because we have different missions," Warner said.

And, according to Marni Farmer, LAM's spokeswoman, relations between the two museums began to warm up even before Warner got to Laguna. In the months before he arrived, the two institutions coordinated their efforts and mutually publicized their special exhibits that were presented under the umbrella of "Pacific Standard Time," the Getty-led regional program showcasing Southern California's contributions to art during the post-war decades until 1980, Farmer said.

As a follow-up to that first step in cooperation, LAM and OCMA also agreed to coordinate press events for their special exhibitions opening this weekend, including OCMA's much-anticipated exhibition of "The Ocean Park Series" of paintings by the late Richard Diebenkorn.

Szakacs, through OCMA spokeswoman Kirsten Schmidt, declined to be interviewed.

"He and I already have struck up a good, friendly relationship, and we're determined to work together for our mutual benefit," Warner said. "Exactly what form that will take, I'm not sure yet. But certainly the will is there to do things together."

Warner added that he was aware of the past acrimony between the two museums while he was applying for the Laguna job.

"It's an unfortunate history because that merger was a complicated scheme that obviously didn't come to fruition ... ," Warner said. "But it was quite a long time ago now, and I think it's time for both institutions to completely put it behind them. It needn't haunt us forever."

Freelance writer Barbara Diamond also contributed to this article.


Twitter: @ImranVittachi

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