The Laguna Art Museum (LAM) has selected Julie Perlin Lee, the executive director of the Catalina Island Museum, as its new executive director.

Lee, an Orange County native who has decades of experience with O.C. art and educational institutions, will start her new job on May 3. Her last day at the Catalina Island Museum will be April 23.

Lee will succeed Malcolm Warner, who retired from the position of executive director on Dec. 31 after serving LAM for nearly nine years. During Warner’s tenure, the museum — Orange County’s oldest — doubled its endowment, doubled its annual budget — from approximately $1.5 million to $3 million — expanded its staff, and elevated its status and visibility.

“I wasn’t looking to leave here,” Lee said Wednesday from her office at Catalina Island Museum. “But I started learning the vision of the (LAM) board. At the end of the day, what got me excited was the vision of the board. Laguna Art Museum is a recognized leader in the California art story.

“Laguna has its foundations as an art colony. For me personally, I would like to be continuing that story. I hope (LAM) continues that legacy, not just provincially, but really taking in the accomplishments of art in the state.”

At 43, Lee will become one of the younger directors for a major museum in Southern California and the entire state, for that matter. She was born in Newport Beach and grew up in Costa Mesa and Irvine. She attended Cal State Fullerton, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in art history there, as well as an MFA in exhibition design and a certificate in museum studies from CSUF.

Lee has served as executive director of Catalina Island Museum since 2016. She has led a period of growth for the museum, including notable exhibitions and educational programs, and the completion of a capital project for the museum’s new permanent facility, which opened in 2016. She curated the exhibitions “Elizabeth Turk: Tipping Point” in 2019 and “Peter Shire, Sculptures” in 2018.

Before that, she was vice president of collections and exhibition development at the Bowers Museum from 2008 to 2016. At the Bowers, she procured acquisitions for the museum’s permanent collection, directed research and preservation, organized exhibitions and contributed to publications, such as “A Legacy of Bounty: Paintings from the Bowers Museum” and “Traditions and Transitions: Tribal Art from North America.”

She also served as curator of exhibitions at the Bowers and was in charge of collections and special exhibitions. She started working there in 2004.

“Toward the end of my time at the Bowers, I got involved in the business of exhibitions, organizing it all,” she said. “I built a new skill set, and when I came here (Catalina), I really let all of those skills blossom. I love to put shows together, but I realize I have the skills to do more than that. As a director, I enjoy working with a team of people. I really like to empower the staff.”

A Vision for Laguna

Lee said her No. 1 priority at Laguna Art Museum will be to hire a curator of contemporary art. Though the museum has organized some impressive, groundbreaking contemporary shows over the years, it has not hired a full-time curator of contemporary art since Grace Kook-Anderson left in 2015.

LAM may need more help in the curatorial department, as Janet Blake, longtime curator of historical art, retired along with Warner at the end of 2020, Lee said.

“I am hoping we have an in-house curator who has a broad understanding of California art — who can bridge the past with the present,” she said. “I want our next curator to work with outside curators as well.”

While now is an auspicious time, with Orange County entering the orange tier in the “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” and museums able to admit visitors at 50% capacity, it’s also challenging, as we are still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think people are beginning to come out as they feel more comfortable, but we want to be respectful,” Lee said. “We’re not out of it just yet.”

She added that online and remote programming will continue at a robust level.

A Known Entity

Lee is well known in the Orange County arts community. In addition to attending CSUF and working at the Bowers, she and her husband ran an art gallery on Main Street in Santa Ana, located close to the Bowers.

Her husband is David Michael Lee, an artist, professor and gallery curator at Coastline Community College in Newport Beach. The couple have two children and currently live on Catalina Island, although the intention is to ultimately move back to O.C., to Laguna Beach.

“I’m not going to be commuting in,” Julie Perlin Lee said. “You can’t say you’re part of an art community and then head out. Laguna is a very tight community.”

LAM’s board of directors hired Koya Partners, an executive search firm, to find Lee. It’s the same firm that discovered and lured Heidi Zuckerman to become the new director and CEO of the Orange County Museum of Art. She was formerly the CEO and director of the Aspen Art Museum in Colorado.

Joe Hanauer, chair of LAM’s board of trustees, said Lee’s hire comes “at an ideal time.”

“With Julie we have a person with strong experience managing exhibitions and collections, and yet someone with experience in senior level museum administration. It’s typically one or the other, but usually not both,” Hanauer said in a statement.

Lee said, “It’s a great time to be part of the arts in Orange County,” as other institutions, such as OCMA, the UCI Institute and Museum of California Art, and the Hilbert Museum of California Art are expanding and relocating.

“We know what we are, and there’s a lot of room for growth there,” she said. “That’s what really got me excited about (the board’s) vision. There’s a lot of untapped resources there, in terms of the collection that’s there.

“I’m looking forward to getting to know the collection, and building upon it.”

Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at

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