Taking plunge from art to surf

Former Laguna Art Museum executive director Bolton Colburn hasn't traded his business attire for Hawaiian shirts just yet, but he is poised to make a splash in the world of surf culture.

Colburn has been hired as executive director by the Surfing Heritage Foundation with an ambitious goal to take the 11-year-old organization from a San Clemente industrial park to an urban coastal center and significantly raise its profile.

"It's my dream job," said Colburn, a former competitive surfer who was a U.S. amateur surfing champion in the late 1970s.

Colburn, 56, left the Laguna museum in May after 23 years and a number of upheavals. He was in the thick of the battle over the museum's ill-fated merger with the Orange County Art Museum in the mid-1990s.

Around 2005, he proposed the Laguna Art Museum move from its longtime location on Cliff Drive to the city's "arts district" near the Laguna Playhouse, Festival of Arts and Sawdust Art Festival — an idea that ultimately foundered.

With the Surfing Heritage Foundation, Colburn holds the reins of an organization that has been mostly devoted to collecting and archiving its considerable holdings, including some 500 surfboards, 250,000 photographs and other materials including film, literature and clothing.

The foundation has been called "The Smithsonian of surf museums," according to a press release from the organization.

The previous executive director left two years ago, Colburn said. Thus, he is stepping into a virtual vacuum.

"They never had anyone from a museum background" on staff, he said.

"We have the largest collection of surfboards, memorabilia and photographs of any institution in the world," Colburn said. "Now the board wants to focus on exhibitions and the need to broaden the audience."

Part of Colburn's work will be to "rebrand" the organization with a new logo, a possible name change and to update its "look," especially on the website.

"We will be starting a rotating exhibit program," he said.

A key component will be bringing the museum's location closer to its "constituents" — the surfers themselves.

"We are now in a San Clemente industrial area, and are in discussion with numerous coastal cities over possible relocation," he said.

Colburn has high praise for the foundation's founder, Dick Metz, a surfing industry pioneer.

"He founded the Hobie stores and made them into a multimillion-dollar business," Colburn said. "Orange County owes the emergence of the apparel industry here to Dick."

Although Colburn said he misses some things about the refined air of the art museum world, he is convinced that surfing is such an integral part of Southern California culture that it deserves its own platform.

In 2003, he curated a hugely popular exhibition at Laguna Art Museum, "Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing," that brought this idea home.

"'Surf Culture' was Laguna Art Museum's most popular exhibition by attendance and it circulated nationally and internationally with much acclaim," he said via email. "I'm interested in the crossover of subcultures like surfing and the arts. The future of museums, that is, their sustainability, is tied to how they are able to adapt to changing audiences (new demographics) and technology.

"'Surf Culture' pointed out that there is a huge beach lifestyle audience to be engaged. The question is, how will museums, and the Surfing Heritage Foundation in particular, meet this challenge and engage this underserved audience?"

Colburn lives in Aliso Viejo with his wife, art historian and freelance curator Susan Anderson. Their children attend Laguna Beach schools.

The foundation's museum is open from 1 to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday at 110 Calle Iglesia, San Clemente. For more information, call (949) 388-0313 or visit http://www.surfingheritage.org.

cindy.frazier@latimes.com

Twitter: @CindyFrazier1

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