A century ago, two local artists came together among the rolling hills and shoreline vistas of Laguna Beach to form a collective that would come to define much of the city’s artistic backbone.
While Edgar Payne and Anna Hills were searching for ways to showcase their artwork, they established the Laguna Beach Art Assn. in 1918 and began displaying their work in a board and batten cabin next to the now-defunct downtown Hotel Laguna.
Though it may be difficult to tell in comparison to its sleek modern look, that humble gallery was the Laguna Art Museum in its infancy.
Today, the century-old art museum stands as the oldest in the county.
As part of its 100th year, the museum will host a series of celebratory functions this year, beginning with the Centennial Bash on Jan. 27 featuring exhibits from local artists and live music from Matt Costa and deejay Nina Tarr.
When the association formed, there were 150 members. The population of Laguna Beach was about 300 at the time.
Like many old things, the museum has gone through various revisions over the years.
In 1929, Hills raised enough money to purchase a gallery more befitting an art museum where the building currently sits at 307 Cliff Drive, said Cody Lee, museum director of communications.
Yet, for many years that gallery was solely used to showcase and sell the works of the members of the art association. Over time, the permanent collection of the gallery grew while a program was initiated to retain loaned works from artists and other museums.
“The Laguna Beach Art Association was formed mainly to exhibit and sell the members’ works, but the seeds of a modern museum were already there,” said Malcolm Warner, the museum’s executive director. “The membership wasn’t limited to artists but represented the whole community. Educational outreach was a priority and the gallery served as Laguna Beach’s cultural and social center.”
The gallery slowly evolved, officially becoming the Laguna Beach Museum of Art in 1972. The museum in its current name and form arrived in 1986 following an expansion of the building.
Meanwhile, the members of the art association would come to play pivotal roles in fostering many art-driven events throughout the city, including the Pageant of the Masters.
As one of the oldest art museums in the state, Laguna Art Museum owes much of its endurance to its beloved place within the hearts of local artists.
Lee said artists have been supportive of the museum partly because of its location, but primarily due to the distinctness of being founded by artists, which has imbued it with a creative spirit.
“For the museum to be founded by artists is pretty unique and it has always kept the spirit of that,” Lee said. “Artists through the whole history have been really generous in loaning or giving artwork to the museum.”
Warner pointed out that throughout his career he’s never come across a museum with such artist-driven origins.
“Whereas my previous museums were founded by wealthy art collectors, Laguna Art Museum was founded by artists, which may be why artists of today seem to have a special place in their hearts for us,” he said.
Through the years, famed artists like Frank Cuprien, Frederick Hammersley, William Wendt and Helen Lundeberg, among many others, had their art featured in the museum. Cuprien left his estate to the art association when he died in 1948.
Among the museum’s other unique qualities is its adherence to only displaying California-related art.
“The museum also has an exceptionally clear and distinctive mission — we are the only museum collecting and showing California art, all of California art, and nothing but California art,” Warner said.
Many museums tend to take a broader focus, exhibiting art from around the world, which can make it difficult to accurately represent the totality of the focus of attention, Lee said. But, because the Laguna museum has a narrower showcase, it can perhaps achieve a greater representation of its subject.
“Even though it’s a big state with a rich history, we are probably able to get closer to having the best representation of the state and its history,” Lee said. “It’s a unique thing to be able to represent an entire region through most of its known history in one museum.”
Centennial schedule of events
Jan. 27, 8 p.m. to midnight : The museum kicks off the year’s festivities with a Centennial Bash.
Feb. 10, 6 to 10 p.m. : There will be an art auction with works from 100 California artists.
April 19, 7 p.m. : The museum will host the premiere screening of the documentary “Laguna Art Museum at 100,” which details its history.
Aug. 25, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. : A birthday bash will be held to honor the official day that the museum began 100 years ago.
Sept. 29: The Centennial Ball will be held to celebrate the museum with dancing and entertainment. Time to be determined.
Nov. 1 through 4: The museum will host its annual Art and Nature festival with special exhibits.