Two strong years at the helm

Genial Laguna Art Museum director Warner has brought change to the institution, expanding its education outreach and much more.

January 09, 2014|By Rhea Mahbubani
  • Malcolm Warner recently completed two years as executive director of the Laguna Art Museum, where he stands with "The Old Post Office" by Joseph Kleitsch, one of the museum's signature pieces.
Malcolm Warner recently completed two years as executive… (Don Leach, Coastline…)

One of the highlights of Malcolm Warner's past year was hearing Wayne Thiebaud spout an off-color joke.

Although he can't recall the pun, the wisecrack led to a lasting friendship with the noted painter.

This — the opportunity to build relationships with artists — is a part of being executive director of the Laguna Art Museum that Warner is greatly attached to.

Warner, who celebrated his two-year anniversary in the position Jan. 2, came to Orange County after a stint at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Because that institution houses only historical art, his role there made for fewer one-on-one interactions.

"Part of the attraction of this job was the ability to work with artists, and that's certainly been a big feature of my time here," he said.

The 60-year-old Laguna Beach resident grew up in Aldershot, just outside London. His hometown made up for the absence of an art museum with a well-stocked library. It is there where Warner, although not a particularly talented artist himself, stumbled into a love for art, which he viewed as a way to look out beyond his immediate surroundings.


With time, his perspective shifted away from what he could gain to the possibility of giving back.

"[I was] discovering art had changed my life, and I could help provide the same possibility for others," he remarked.

This realization led him to the Courtauld Institute at the University of London, where he obtained his Ph.D in art history. Upon marrying his American wife, Sara, Warner moved to the United States in 1988 and has since also worked at the San Diego Museum of Art and Yale Center for British Art, spearheading major exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the National Gallery in London.

In 1990, he first visited the Laguna Art Museum, where he saw the "California Light" show. The organization's small-is-beautiful vibe stayed with Warner, as did its mission to showcase the crème de la crème of California art.

Serendipitously, the directorship became available in 2011 as Warner, then a curator, was looking for a change. Warner was hired to replace Bolton Colburn, who left after 24 years with the Laguna museum — including the past 14 as its director.

Based on his experience, Warner knew that being at the helm of a smallish institution would afford him the chance to be involved all aspects of its operations. And he was right.

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