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Uncovering the mysteries behind the museum: A conversation with Executive Director Julie Perlin Lee

By MARRIE STONE

Museums have always intrigued me. Maybe it comes from watching too many movies like Night at the Museum or The Da Vinci Code. Living statues and stolen art aside, I’m interested in how exhibitions get chosen. What goes into putting them on? Who funds them? And how have the museum’s goals adapted to fit our evolving culture? 

Julie Perlin Lee, executive director of the Laguna Art Museum (LAM), eagerly agreed to answer my questions. “The number one thing I’d love to do is take the mystery out of the museum,” Lee said. “We are not mysterious.” We talked for nearly an hour and, by the end, I’d gained an even deeper appreciation for this artistic gem in our midst. Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Courtesy of LAM

Julie Perlin Lee, executive director of the Laguna Art Museum, poses in the storage facility for the museum’s permanent collection

Stu News: First off, am I alone in wondering how museums operate?

Julie Perlin Lee: You’re not alone. We recently had a group of MFA students come over from LCAD asking similar questions. They wanted to meet with staff and understand what goes on in the museum. If you’re someone who plans to spend a life in the arts, you want to know how the museum works. 

I was so grateful for their questions. I put out an invitation to my entire team and almost everyone who could said they’d love to participate. I wanted to impart to them that we are not mysterious. Many of us, including me, have an MFA. We’re here as a creative team, working together, and we’re all accessible and open to questions.

Each of us here is committed to the arts, not just professionally but in our personal lives. We don’t just clock into work. We try to be part of the art world ourselves by spending a lot of time going to art shows, other museums and being part of national organizations like the American Alliance of Museums. We hold ourselves to the broader museum community while also focusing on Laguna Beach. We’re a youthful, energetic and participatory group of arts people who truly care about the museum.

SN: You took the helm as executive director last April. Has the mission of the museum changed under your leadership?

JPL: The mission statement has not changed. And it doesn’t need to change at its core, but it’s time to refine it a bit. There’s different messaging out there about the museum. Some say we’re the premier museum of California art. Others say our mission is to become financially successful. They all say slightly different things, and they’re all true to some degree. But a mission statement should be focused and consistent all the way through. 

We’ll be working with the board at the end of the month to define who we serve and why, and what we do that separates us from the rest. 

In the coming months we’ll put out a more finite, consistent message about who we are, what we do and who we serve. For me, that’s part of a bigger strategy to move the museum on a path to ensure we’re following the same standards of excellence as the rest of the museum world.

SN: As executive director, do you oversee curation?

JPL: When LAM was under Malcolm Warner’s leadership, he was doing a lot of the curating. I absolutely understand why. That’s my background too. It’s one of the best parts about working in a museum – meeting people, deciding what stories should rise to the top, who hasn’t been appreciated with a museum exhibition yet, what our collection holds that would help us tell a story. We have all these works in our collection. What are we doing with them? He was leading in that way. At the moment so am I, but it’s not my desire to do that even though it’s so much fun. 

I want to bring on a curator or two in the future. I’m using this first year to understand the rhythm of the organization. But, at some point, we will bring in a curator whose sole job is to help select and create the exhibitions.

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Courtesy of LAM

Julie Perlin Lee with artist Rebeca Méndez working on the 2022 Art & Nature exhibition

SN: Talk about how the exhibitions are selected.

JPL: We look for artists who’ve had exemplary careers and haven’t had the opportunity to have someone seriously look at their work. Perhaps they’ve been in a lot of group shows, but they’ve never had the chance to have a singular exhibition. We’re looking at artists who’ve had full careers in and around the area. We look for local Orange County artists. There are so many who have contributed enormously to the arts and have not had a chance to show in the museum. I’m also looking at shows that are going to bring in people from different regions to come to the museum. 

For example, we’re looking at a foundation that has a tremendous archive of contemporary artworks. For the most part, these artists are all household names. A show like that includes a lot of large-scale work, which is wonderful because we have a large-scale gallery. We’re speaking with them about bringing that to fruition.

SN: What does it take to put on an exhibition.

JPL: Putting a show together takes a lot of work. Sponsorship has to happen. Hopefully catalogs are happening. Scholarships are being written, loans have to be found and conservation needs to happen to make sure the works are looking their best before they go on the wall. Not to mention all the party planning and everything else that happens closer to the show’s opening.

SN: What are your immediate goals for LAM?

JPL: We really want to see 100,000 people being served annually by the organization – either through the door, with our virtual programs, with our outdoor Art & Nature exhibits, or in our Laguna Beach classrooms. However we can do it, that’s our goal. We think it’s a reasonable goal for a museum of our age, with the artworks we’ve collected and with our capacity. Not to mention our beautiful location. 

We’re focused on who we want to see and who we’re not seeing at the museum. The preschool program is a perfect example. We don’t see many small children in here. Being exposed to the arts is important at that age level. There’s plenty of research behind that. So we started a preschool art storybook program and art making time that’s about to launch. We also want to see more artists at the museum, so we’re kicking off an artist lecture series focused on themes and artmaking with artists. Hopefully that builds a stronger community.

We’ve recently put more effort into social media and weekly newsletters to make people realize there’s a lot happening at the museum all the time. 

SN: Has the museum returned to some sense of normalcy since its pandemic closure?

JPL: It’s very difficult for me to know what’s normal because, of course, I started in a year where we’d only been open one month after a year of closures. I’ve been at the museum plenty of times in the past as a visitor. But it’s hard for me to judge normality. We’re still operating in a reactionary mode from the pandemic.

There’s still a lot for me to learn. There are still a lot of people who aren’t comfortable coming yet. But we have to keep trying. We’re increasing our virtual programming quite a bit. 

SN: How much do you draw from the Los Angeles art community?

JPL: We’re doing a show next fall on photographer William Mortensen. He was a familiar face at the Festival of Arts during the end of his career and had his school of photography here in Laguna Beach. But he had an extraordinary background and close relationship to Hollywood during his early years. We’ve been working with different scholars, so we’re hoping to get not just our local community excited about celebrating one of our own, but the Los Angeles audience and photographers everywhere. Again, we’re focused on what assets we have and who we can talk to. We look internally at our collection to decide who’s of greater interest to a wide group of people. We try to get those people interested in the museum. It’s a lot of connecting with people from every arts community. 

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Courtesy of LAM

LAM leads art access trips to Los Angeles galleries like Hauser & Wirth to extend the reach of the art education programming

SN: You’ve got such a rich permanent collection – something like 5,000 pieces of art. I know you show pieces of it periodically. Are there plans to exploit it further?

JPL: I believe we always need to be showing work from our permanent collection and let people get exposed to it. In terms of California art history, we’ve collected work since before the state even became a state. We’re holding almost every genre you can imagine. We tell the California story through art.

It’s important to continue cycling through the collection and let people become more familiar with it. It’s a collection built on the generosity of others, either works donated by artists or collectors. The whole museum is built on the generosity of others, which is why it’s important for us to give back and serve. We are grateful for all the people who have come before us. We’re looking forward to meeting more of the community and letting them share in that generosity.

SN: Can you introduce us to some members of your team?

JPL: It would be an honor to recognize them because these people work so hard. Tim Schwab has been here for two decades. He’s our institutional memory. He has a direct hand on the look and feel of the design and installation of the organization. He’s also stepped up his role in ensuring our social media and other communication is looking good. 

Tim Campbell is our registrar. Getting art in and out of this building is not easy. Every schedule in the whole world is upset by supply chain issues. We rely on art shippers and other people in the workforce who we can’t control. It’s been challenging. Tim Campbell has done an extraordinary job with that during a very difficult time. 

Victoria Gerard is our new deputy director. Her emphasis is on our education department. She ensures our docents stay well informed and have the tools they need. She’s working on virtual programming as she has a lot of specialized experience in that area, and also the young children’s educational program. I’m so grateful for her. Plus, she’s out in the community trying to get involved with other organizations and be a face for the museum.

There are plenty of people behind the scenes who you rarely see. Lucila Ucio is our director of operations. She makes sure all the nuts and bolts stay together, that our amazing frontline staff is organized, that our store is stocked, that everyone is getting paid and we don’t miss any bills, that our insurance is up to date, all of those things. She’s incredible and works so hard. Everybody works so hard. I can’t name all of them, but I would love to name them all. 

Together we are a staff of around 28 people (including part-time positions). Our core group is 11. We’re about one person deep in each department. For example Tim, who’s responsible for getting the art in and out of the museum, also oversees our entire permanent art collection of 5,000 pieces. At another museum, that department would usually be overseen by at least two directors with people underneath them. Everyone wears a lot of hats here. It won’t always be this way, but it’s what we have to do at the moment. 

SN: You’ve worked at a few other museums. Can you talk about what drew you to LAM?

JPL: The museum has an outstanding collection of California art. I haven’t even scratched the surface to know the depth of our collection and the ways we can put it to good use. There will be infinite ways. 

And because I’m a history lover, I love that this museum has such a great history and legacy. The whole State of California needs to know the legacy of this museum and our contributions to the art world. It’s not a museum that popped up recently. It’s artist-founded and has been making an impact for over 100 years. That’s extraordinary to me. I love being part of that.

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Courtesy of LAM

Julie Perlin Lee poses with Stephanie Barron, LACMA senior curator department head of modern art, who was LAM’s 2021 Wendt Award recipient

SN: Any hidden gems in the museum that people should know about?

JPL: One thing I was excited to find out recently. We probably have about 30 artists with 12 or more artworks in our collection. That’s a significant holding. Wayne Thiebaud is a perfect example. Armed with that information, we can look at art from all one time period, or we can show work across a single person’s career.  We can investigate why we have so much work from one artist and ask, “What’s the story here?” 

Also, I’m still just getting to understand the building, so I feel like there are surprises every day here. There are more little closets and crawl spaces in this museum. But don’t go looking for them because we might not find you again. 

SN: How much of your decision making is influenced by the donors? 

JPL: So much of what we do relies on fundraising. Every decision is weighed carefully against the people supporting the museum and their experience of the museum. They have to love what we do. When I make a decision, it’s not just that I think it’s a great idea. It’s like having hundreds of stakeholders. I need to be mindful of how we’re putting their donations to use.

SN: To that point, I’m curious how the museum is funded. What percentage comes from membership fees versus donors versus fundraisers? 

JPL: I don’t have a breakdown by category, but there are generally two types of revenue – earned and contributed. About 75% comes from contributed revenue. You can’t just flip that on overnight. I’ve been working hard on that aspect. 

In terms of creating earned revenue streams, we’re very focused on that because it alleviates the pressure on contributions. 

Then we have an endowment we’re also building. That’s another key strategy. The larger our endowment grows, the less we rely on fundraising. Those two things together are what I’m focused on from a business point of view because everyone gets tired of being asked. At the moment, we don’t have another option. We’re still a museum that has to ask for funding.

SN: Your annual auction is coming up. Is there anything you’re excited to share?

JPL: Over 100 individuals came together to support the museum this year. Their donations amount to the largest gross combined value of artworks ever donated to the museum for an art auction. But it’s not just about the value of the artwork. There are some exceptional works by some very well-known artists. I really want to thank that group of people.

There’s one I’m particularly excited about. I reached out on a whim to the artist Judy Chicago. We have one of her works in the collection. When I contacted the group who helps her, they were so excited to hear from us because they had lost track of that particular artwork. They didn’t know where it was. 

That’s another great thing about this job – receiving that kind of enthusiasm back. Not only were they excited to hear from us, but they were also excited to donate a print and artwork to the auction. I promised to reconnect with them after the auction because the museum should have more than one Judy Chicago in its collection. She’s such a foundational artist for feminist art in California. Her start was through Cal State. One of her shows was at Cal State Fullerton. So she has some local presence in terms of her history and art making.

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Courtesy of LAM

Julie Perlin Lee meets with members from Bonhams Los Angeles to discuss the 2022 California Cool Art Auction

SN: It sounds like there’s a lot to love about this job. What’s your favorite part?

JPL: It’s a joyous place for me to be. I love coming here every day. But my favorite part is watching people in the galleries explore the art. That is the best part. That’s the payoff.

For more information about LAM and their programming, visit their website at www.lagunaartmuseum.org.

 

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