The state of the arts at LAM

By MARRIE STONE

‘Tis the season for hustle and bustle at the Laguna Art Museum (LAM). As the staff prepares for the 42nd Annual California Cool Art Auction and Benefit taking place on March 2, several behind-the-scenes projects are happening as well. Executive Director Julie Perlin Lee described a few of them as “nerdy museum stuff,” but each one represents an exciting development consistent with LAM’s strategic plan. Many of the museum’s goals – especially relating to both youth and adult education – have been paying big dividends lately. It all adds up to securing LAM’s reputation as a premier institution for celebrating California art.

I caught up with both Lee and LAM’s Marketing Coordinator Ryan Tuffnell to learn about the latest advancements and what’s planned for the year ahead.

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Photos courtesy of LAM

Executive Director Julie Perlin Lee took the helm of LAM in 2021

That “nerdy museum stuff”

Alongside the impending release of its five-year strategic plan, LAM is revamping its website and applying for accreditation to the American Alliance of Museums. When completed, LAM will join 78 other accredited museums in the State of California.

To earn accreditation, a museum first must conduct a year of self-study, then undergo a site visit by a team of peer reviewers.

“Once you achieve that, it opens up all sorts of new doors – donor confidence and lending confidence and better museum recognition and partnerships,” said Lee, who has made accreditation one of her primary goals since taking the helm in 2021. “It [involves] a tightening up of all things internally and making sure we’re all following best practices so when we start to go through that process, it’s a bit more streamlined.”

Both the website launch and release of the strategic plan will take place later this year.

Welcoming new staff

Last month, LAM announced two significant new hires – Crystal Tosello as the new development manager and Carl Smith taking on the role of exhibition and graphic designer. They joined four other recently named positions including Carly Bornmann as development events coordinator, Cami Keller as the collections and registration assistant, Robbin Rundle as education coordinator, and Laura Belani as registrar and collections manager.

Tosello’s title as development manager is a new one for the museum, but will take some pressure off Lee who has been playing that role.

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LAM’s new development manager Crystal Tosello

Is the woman-heavy staff intentional or happy coincidence, I asked. “A happy coincidence,” Lee said. And how about all those “C” names? “Not only that, but they all sit in the same section – Carly, Cami, Crystal, Carly and Carl. It’s become a little joke.”

Four employees are also mothers to 4 and 5-year-olds. Lee has two children of her own. “When they’re together, we have all these mini-museum workers,” Lee said, relaying a story about their recent holiday staff party when the kids took over the LAM+LAB while Lee’s 9-year-old daughter babysat. “There were drawings and cuttings everywhere, projects everywhere. It was awesome.”

An emphasis on education

Speaking of all those mini-museum employees, Lee has emphasized both childhood and adult educational programs from the beginning. Partnering with Title One schools that serve under-represented communities in the arts, as well as educators serving neurodivergent students and healthcare providers who treat dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, LAM uses its resources and skills to reach a wide audience who uniquely benefits from their offerings.

“Things are going better than planned because of the quality of our art curriculum, which we’ve been testing and using in the local schools,” Lee said.

The receipt of a generous grant from the State of California allowed LAM to write a full curriculum to employ with Title One Schools across Orange County. “It’s just a blast whenever they’re here,” she said. “Youth education is critical. For kids to be able to go somewhere else and see the real deal – not just a picture – can be a life changer.”

Tuffnell added that this is the first time many of these students have seen themselves represented in art. For example, LAM’s current Self Help Graphics exhibition drew several positive comments from Hispanic students who had never before seen their experiences depicted in art.

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Docent Jennifer Yelland provided guided tours to children K-12

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Bridging the gap

That commitment to make art both more accessible and more relatable represents another goal for LAM. Unlike stuffy East Coast collections, LAM proves art connoisseurs can simultaneously be smart and California casual.

“As we better define what our product is here, we strive to make people feel relaxed,” Lee said. “We know we can do serious stuff, but still have the friendliness and the coastal attitude. That’s not easy to pull off. But you can have it all. You can be really smart and a beach bum at the same time.”

That attitude allows LAM to serve a broader demographic. Tuffnell relayed a recent experience with a local who wasn’t your typical museumgoer. “She was so happy that we had the Shepard Fairey exhibition. She said, ‘Finally! Something I understood in an art museum!’ It was a cool moment when I got to first-hand hear how our approach to that exhibition brought someone new to the museum.

Now she’s keeping closer tabs on us,” Tuffnell said.

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The Shepard Fairey exhibition welcomed a wide-ranging crowd

I wondered whether LAM was making intentional attempts toward showing edgier art these days.

“That’s not the primary thing we’re thinking about when looking at exhibitions,” Lee said. “The number one goal is looking for underrepresented artists. Or maybe some part of their career has been overlooked. Art + Nature also gives us an opportunity to work with people who are pushing boundaries in a different way.

“We don’t want to be so edgy that we turn people off. But people get turned off not because things are edgy, but because they don’t understand something. If we don’t have all the mechanisms in place to make sure people really understand what they’re looking at – and can feel comfortable with it – then we haven’t done our job.”

Lee points to an upcoming exhibition of Carole Caroompas planned for 2025 as an example. Caroompas’ paintings explored the intersection of pop culture and gender archetypes, often incorporating nudity and sexuality. In a 1989 interview, Caroompas shared her philosophy on the purpose of art – “to assault the senses or change the world.”

“[Caroompas] was never embraced as an artist and she was really bitter about it,” Lee said. “She made monumental work, but pretty quietly. As a woman with very feminist ideas, some of that sexuality comes out in her work. She also was a punk rocker, so there’s a lot of punk rock imagery that’s sexual in nature, so that’s definitely edgy.

“But our job is to frame that into the time period she’s coming out of. What were her influences? How she was treated? How does that resonate in her work? I’m not afraid to do edgy [exhibitions]. But, again, the interpretation needs to be there.”

Tuffnell added, “It’s important to note that when we have those edgier exhibitions, it reaches people who we might not otherwise reach. So, while it may be edgy, it’s also more inclusive.”

Inclusivity – whether it relates to age, nationality, sexuality, or otherwise – remains a top priority for LAM.

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Marketing Coordinator Ryan Tuffnell has been with LAM since 2019

What else should we stay on the lookout for? Both Lee and Tuffnell are excited for Adam Neeley’s upcoming jewelry show, as well as modernist artist Jay DeFeo and collage artist Fred Tomaselli. Curatorial Fellow Rochelle Steiner is hard at work on catalogues for both DeFeo and Tomaselli. “We are ramping up our publications again, so expect more publications from LAM,” Lee said.

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A piece from Adam Neeley’s upcoming exhibit. “Aria” is made of 14kt white gold, VeraGold™ and titanium.

LAM has also ramped up its communications to visitors. If you’re not on their email distribution list, now is a good time to subscribe.

“We now send out a month-at-a-glance email. That’s helpful for people to plan what they want to see.”

To learn more about LAM, the 42nd Annual California Cool Art Auction and Benefit or other upcoming programs, lectures and events, visit its website by clicking here.

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