After a period of uncertainty following a transition at the top, Laguna Art Museum (LAM) is bringing its signature festival, “Art & Nature,” back for a ninth straight year, starting Thursday.

Malcolm Warner retired from LAM in December after nearly nine years as executive director. Orange County native Julie Perlin Lee, formerly the executive director of the Catalina Island Museum, took over the top post in May.

The future of Art & Nature — which was the brainchild of Warner and perhaps one of his most impactful legacies — seemed a little up in the air for a few months. (When this publication inquired about fall exhibitions back in late August-early September, we got no response from LAM for several weeks.)

But Art & Nature’s return has been confirmed, exhibitions have been hung, and the details have come into full form.

The starting date of Art & Nature is Thursday, Nov. 4, which coincides with Laguna Beach’s First Thursdays Art Walk. LAM will offer free admission from 6-9 p.m.

The featured exhibition of the festival is “Any-Instant-Whatever” by Mexican American artist Rebeca Méndez. Méndez is a professor and chair of the Design Media Arts Department at UCLA.

“Any-Instant-Whatever” is a multimedia video installation that takes over the entire Steele Gallery, LAM’s largest single gallery. The work captures and documents the sky above Los Angeles during winter 2019-20, from dawn until dusk. The soundtrack is composed by Drew Schnurr, who played crystal bowls tuned with various levels of water, digitized and played back in layers.

“Any-Instant-Whatever” is an homage to philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson, a longtime inspiration for Méndez, according to the LAM website.

“She’s a very poetic person who makes beautiful artworks,” Lee said about Méndez, who was originally commissioned to do an outdoor installation, as is the tradition with Art & Nature. However, there were some complications due to COVID-19 and city approval, Lee said. So this project was brought indoors, with the plan of bringing Méndez back next year for an outdoor work.

Two New Exhibitions on Display

In addition to Mendez’s installation, the museum is opening two new exhibitions: “A Fanciful World,” highlighting paintings of exotic birds and flowers by Jessie Arms Botke; and “Sky Space Time Change,” featuring paintings, prints, sculpture and photography from LAM’s permanent collection.

Botke was a Chicago-born painter who moved to California in 1919 and became known for her paintings of birds and use of gold leaf highlights. Her 29-foot-long mural, featuring flamingos and cranes on a gold leaf background and painted in 1953, once adorned the Oaks Hotel in Ojai. It was going to be destroyed in a proposed remodel of the hotel. But it is now in the collection of the UCI Institute and Museum of California Art, formerly the Irvine Museum, and is on loan for this exhibit.

“A Fanciful World” also examines works from different periods of Botke’s career and travels, including “Macaw & Cockatoos,” a 1926 oil and gold leaf on canvas mounted on panel.

The selections from the permanent collection underscore the connections between art and nature. Many of them are inspired by the Southern California skies, as Mendez’s installation is, making connections between physical, environmental and cultural systems.

Other Festival Events

Art & Nature typically features a guest speaker, and this year is no exception. On Friday, Nov. 5, Daniel Lewis, senior curator for the history of science and technology at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, will deliver the keynote lecture titled “John James Audubon: Art, Nature and Science in the Nineteenth Century.”

Audubon was an American ornithologist, naturalist and painter who sought to create a complete pictorial record of all the bird species in North America. The National Audubon Society is named after him.

‘Art & Nature’

When: Nov. 4 through April 25, 2022

Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, closed Wednesdays; open 6-9 p.m. on the first Thursday of the month

Where: Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach

Admission: $12 general, $9 students 18 and older, seniors and military; free for visitors 12 and younger

Information: (949) 494-8971 or

Since he owned slaves, opposed the abolition of slavery and wrote about the supposed inferiority of Black and Indigenous people, his legacy is being reappraised. Just last month, the Audubon Naturalist Society, based in Maryland, announced that it would change its name and remove the name “Audubon,” to “one that better reflects the growing, rich diversity of the region that we serve,” according to the society’s website

Lewis will deliver his lecture in the gallery with Botke’s exhibition on display. His talk will include Audubon’s complete legacy, including his controversial views and troubled history, Lee said. Tickets are $25 for museum members and $30 for non-members.  

On Saturday, Nov. 6, Laguna Art Museum will host its annual Art & Nature Gala at the Sherman Library and Gardens in Corona del Mar. Proceeds will help support LAM’s education programs and exhibitions of California art, which are central to the museum’s mission. Tickets are sold out and no longer available.

On Sunday, Nov. 14, the museum and its partners are hosting the Art & Nature Family Festival from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The event will include hands-on activities and educational stations throughout the museum that explore art, climate, science, animal welfare and environmental issues. Admission is free.

“It’s so important for me to know that families can bring their kids here. They’re not going to be shushed,” said Lee, a mother of two children. “I want them to enjoy what the museum has to offer.”

In the coming months, Lee said she aims to get various projects organized and into place. She also hopes to start a search for a full-time curator, particularly one who specializes in California and/or contemporary art.

Staff Turnover

The museum has been without a full-time curator since Janet Blake, curator of historical art, retired at the end of 2020. The last full-time curator of contemporary art was Grace Kook-Anderson, who left the museum in 2015.

In other departments, there has been a significant amount of turnover, with a majority of the staff leaving or planning to leave. Cody Lee, the museum’s director of communications, left in September for a position as grants manager at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. And Joel Woodard, director of operations, will be leaving the museum next week.

The museum has made at least one significant new hire: Victoria Gerard, the new deputy director who started Sept. 7. She previously served as vice president of programs and collections at the Bowers Museum, where she worked alongside Julie Perlin Lee for many years.

Julie Perlin Lee, executive director of the Laguna Art Museum. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Catalina Island Museum

“She’s skilled and professional, and she has a whole new skill set that’s really needed at the museum,” Lee said. “She expanded the (Bowers) department (of programs and collections) far beyond anything I ever did, which is terrific.”

While the still relatively-new executive director has ambitious goals for the museum, she wants to “build cautiously” and “focus on financial stability.”

Currently, the museum has a $2.8 annual budget, and financial matters are stable, Lee said. “I want a strong Laguna Art Museum,” she said.

A few other, related art programs are occurring in Laguna Beach during the Art & Nature festival. Check the museum’s website for details.

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

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