Joe Surf: Bolton to 'Ft. Knox of Surfing'

It was a natural fit, really, when you think about it.

Bolton Colburn recently was named executive director of the Surfing Heritage Foundation, in charge of running the foundation's museum and raising its profile in the museum world.

Colburn, 56, came to the SHF after 23 years at the Laguna Art Museum, where his most popular exhibition was produced in conjunction with the publication of a book by the same name: "Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing."

That was 10 years ago, but it really put him on a direct path to the SHF.

"The premise of 'Surf Culture' was to look at the intersection of the arts and surfing," Colburn said. "I certainly think it's an aspect of what we'll take a look at here. There's other things we'll be looking at as well, whether that's environmental or technological or related fields like skateboarding. There's a whole world of related activities we'll be looking at and dealing with."

The foundation's museum is located in San Clemente, but Colburn hasn't ruled out moving it, all in an effort to become a major force in the museum world. Colburn is thinking big.

"The bottom line is to engage more people," Colburn said. "The Surfing Heritage Foundation has done some wonderful things in terms of collections and getting people involved within the industry.

"What I'm interested in is broadening their reach and being able to touch people that aren't necessarily so involved within the surfing industry. And that's a big goal."

An old-school surfer might call Colburn a sellout — just another in a long line of those who have jumped on the surf culture bandwagon for a profit. The surf industry is a billion-dollar business, headed by surf apparel, so why not museums?

But Colburn has some surf cred, himself an American Surfing Assn. champion back in 1977; the ASA being the predecessor to the National Scholastic Surfing Assn. He still surfs regularly today, at Salt Creek and Trestles, with his two sons, ages 16 and 12.

"One of the things that keeps me in the water are my two sons," he said.

He was born in Carmel, moved to San Diego during his teen years and graduated from UC San Diego. He now lives in the Laguna Audubon community of Aliso Viejo.

So Colburn is all about SoCal and the surf lifestyle. Combined with his experience and knowledge in the museum world, the only question now is: What took him so long to join SHF?

"I had been watching the development of the Surfing Heritage Foundation since its inception (11 years ago)," Colburn said. "I had an interest in the organization and had been in dialogue with them for a long time. I felt it was time to get involved with them. They seemed like they were in a place when it would be a good time for me to come on board."

Colburn is wasting no time getting started. One of his bigger projects is to implement a rotating exhibition program, in which an area of the museum will hold exhibits that last about three or four months before being replaced by a new one.

"My short-term priorities have to do with getting the developmental apparatus up and moving more broadly," he said. "The way I'm doing that is through increased marketing. We're going through a period where we'll do some re-branding."

It's a big job, but Colburn admits it's a great place to work and he has a great product to market.

"It's going really well," he said. "We're accomplishing a great deal. I have some pretty big changes in the works with the organization and we're in the midst with those things. You can't see them yet but come this spring there should be more evidence of them.

"This really is the Ft. Knox of Surfing."

JOE HAAKENSON is an Orange County-based sports writer and editor. He may be reached at

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