Editor's note: The following exhibition description was reprinted in Resource Library on November 27, 2007 with permission of the author and the Laguna Art Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author at CaliformiaArt.com directly through this web address:

Additionally, the Laguna Art Museum can be found on the Web at:

75 Works, 75 Years, Collecting the Art of California: The Years 1918 - 1955

by Nancy Dustin Wall Moure


Picturesque Laguna attracted artists as early as 1877, but the one who claimed the honor of bringing Laguna's beauty to the attention of other artists was Norman St. Clair, who "discovered" the beach town in 1900. In the first three decades of the twentieth century, many Los Angeles landscapists either vacationed or summered at Laguna. Most came at the recommendation of an artist friend, for the little town was secluded far from the main highway between Los Angeles and San Diego, and, unlike many other beaches, was not promoted as a resort or place of amusement. Artists were drawn, too, by the summer art schools run, at different times in the 1910s, by such Los Angeles painters as William McBurney, William Lees Judson and William Cahill.

The first important artist to settle was George Gardner Symons (c.1861 - 1930), who bought property in Arch Beach (now part of Laguna) in 1903. The first full-time resident artist of Laguna Beach was Conway Griffith, who came in 1908. From 1910 through the mid 1920s, a dozen or so more painters came to live year-round, including Frank Cuprien, Anna Hills, Alice Fullerton, William Wendt and Edgar Payne.

Most of these artists were landscapists working in Southern California's variant of the nationally-popular Impressionist style. Today, historians have termed this local style "plein-air" art, using the fact that the works were often painted out of doors to tie together the wide variety of techniques within the school. Southern California's contribution to that school is identifiably regional, having unique light, color, and subject matter, and was important within the nation's early twentieth century art history.

In the summer of 1918 there were between thirty and forty artists in Laguna. The permanent population of about fifteen was swelled by regular summer artists as well as by those attending William Cahill's summer class. The town, with a total citizenry of about 300, consisted of a hotel, a post office and a store, with board-and-batten cottages strung out to the north and south for a mile or two. Roads were dirt, Arch Beach had neither electricity nor natural gas, and there was only one telephone.

Artist Edgar Payne had just finished remodeling a house for himself when he decided to convert the town's one multi-purpose building, the old town hall/pavilion, into an art gallery. The building, nestled in a eucalyptus grove beside the old hotel had been used by William Judson's pupils for a gallery in 1916. Securing permission from hotel owner Yoch, and using monies contributed by artists, Payne and his artist friends modified the pavilion into a gallery by taking out the side windows to make more wall space, and putting them in the ceiling to make a skylight.

The first exhibition opened on July 27, 1918, and on August 20, several artists met at Payne's home to organize an art association, a formal group to run the gallery. Art associations were a standard means for early twentieth century Americans to bring art into their communities, whether they were groups of lay people who wanted a museum or artists who wanted a place to exhibit their work for sale. The Laguna Beach Art Association was of the latter type. The artists needed a dependable person ("custodian") to run the gallery and handle money. The Association regulated the size and number of paintings its members could exhibit. Its other objectives were more general: to advance the knowledge of and interest in art, and to create a spirit of cooperation and fellowship between painter and public. The Association began with 150 charter members, thirty-five of whom were artists, more than half of them residents of Los Angeles.

The Association's main purpose was to present its members' art for sale. It put together official Association exhibitions that traveled within the state, as well as shows by member artists that were sent throughout the state and beyond. It also encouraged members to seek exhibition elsewhere.

The Chamber of Commerce had already chosen the "art colony" image for Laguna Beach. The image made the city special, along with Carmel, its sister art colony in the north, by distinguishing it from other beach towns known for their fishing, port facilities, amusement parks or oil wells. Even before 1920, outside groups were making day-long excursions to the town to tour the gallery, visit artists' studios and have lunch. And in the 1920s post World War I progress and construction of the Pacific Coast Highway contributed to Laguna's steady growth and modernization.

From the very first years, the Association dreamed of having its own fireproof building. Fires were a constant problem in the beach community, especially during the summers when the brush was dry, water pressure was low, and the Santa Ana winds blew.

Two funds were begun, one to purchase a lot and the second to construct a building. A committee was formed to locate a lot. After some searching, it approached H. G. Heisler, the developer of Laguna Cliffs, a tract to the north of the town center. He agreed in June 1923 to sell a prime lot on the corner of the proposed Pacific Coast Highway and Cliff drive. The site had a commanding view of the Pacific Ocean, and was near a long strip of land along the cIiffs that Heisler had donated for a park. The cost was $4,000, but Heisler agreed to defray half.

As early as 1921, the Association had accepted a design for the art gallery from noted Los Angeles architect Myron Hunt. When the deed for the lot was finally acquired in the fall of 1925 (held up by the survey of Pacific Coast Highway), Association officers imagined a completed gallery within a year. Ground-breaking didn't actually occur, however, until August 25, 1928. The official opening was held February 16, 1929.

The cost of the building was $20,000, the funds for which were raised entirely by the Association without benefit of today's grant programs, and without tying into budgets of any city, county, state or federal government. The Association raised money in various ways, including theme-centered festivals, but its greatest assets were artist-donated paintings that could be sold.

The building opened to rave reviews, both from the local South Coast News (which devoted its entire February 15, 1929, issue to the new gallery), and from the Los Angeles Times. For a town with a population of only about 2,000, Laguna Beach had attained an unheard-of goal.

The 1929 building consisted of what is currently the main gallery and its basement, with the addition of a small, single-story "L." A decorative pergola spanned the front. The main gallery measured 60 by 36 feet and the walls were two-foot-thick reinforced hollow concrete. The lighting, primarily from a huge skylight, was heralded for its accurate illumination of the paintings.

Within months of the opening, the stock market crashed, bringing on the Great Depression. Laguna Beach did not suffer economically as much as some industrialized cities, for it was primarily a community of retirees and of second homes for the affluent, notably Hollywood personalities. Its income came from tourists, from recreations such as sport-fishing and sunbathing, and from real estate. Through the 1930s, new building starts even increased, and Laguna's banks issued regular dividends.

Laguna artists also seemed to fare better than many. Few were employed by the WPA projects headquartered in Los Angeles. The only hint of tight purse-strings came in 1933, when William A. Griffith announced himself coordinator for those who wanted to barter paintings for goods and services.

The artists' biggest problems were the changes brought by development. Booming real estate boosted utilities and goods and services, but also nurtured a whole new group of residents who were more interested in gardening, sports and other activities than in art. By the late 1930s, Laguna's picturesqueness was altered as most of the stately eucalyptuses were cut down to make way for buildings, the old fisherman's shack was demolished, and the old pier was battered apart by waves.

An important source of income for the Association through the 1930s was the Festival of Arts, the last and most successful of several festivals sponsored by Laguna Beach to lure tourists to the village. The Festival of Arts was proposed at a meeting of the Laguna Beach Art Association on April 11, 1932, by Sumner Crosby, former editor of the South Coast News, at the urging of John Hinchman. The two saw it as an "intellectual" carnival, with art exhibitions at various sites and a street art market.

Beyond economics, the 1930s saw other forces tugging at the Association. More and more members lived out of town, even in other states. By 1929 there were 700 members as compared to 150 in 1918. Only forty-five artists lived in Laguna Beach. Of the new generation, most espoused new styles such as Regionalism, the California watercolor style, and various forms of modernism: abstraction, surrealism and transcendentalism. Critic Antony Anderson noted modernist paintings in the opening exhibition of the new art gallery in February of 1929. They also appeared in members' shows through the early 1930s in greater or lesser degree, depending on the jury and the Association administration. South Coast artists espousing modernism even formed their own group, called Contemporary Painters, in early 1931. (The name was changed to Independents, and finally to Progressive Painters by 1932.)

The modernists found themselves at stylistic odds with the plein-air artists who had started the art gallery. The heart of the conflict was over exhibition. Inclusion in the bimonthly members' shows was crucial if one wanted to sell, and inclusion depended on the jury. Conservative juries admitted representational landscapes while modernist-inclined juries, most often from the larger metropolitan areas, chose modernist paintings.

Laguna was not alone in this quandary. The Oakland Museum and the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art finally "solved" their similar problems by adopting three-part juries, one for modern art, one for conservative art, and one for paintings that fell in the middle. One reason Laguna's conflict seemed more bitter was because the Association was run by artists. Policy was set by those who quibbled the loudest out of self-interest, rather than by neutral administrators having the welfare of the entire gallery in mind.

The Association leaned heavily towards modernism during the presidency of Louis Danz (1932 - 1934), a modernist composer who owned Danz Music Company in Santa Ana. Under Danz, exhibitions were mounted of work by post-surrealist Los Angeles artist Lorser Feitelson and his wife, Natalie Newking. Conversely, when George Brandriff, a plein-air painter, became president (1934 - 36), the programs swung back toward the conservative side. Committees were formed to give more artists control of programs. Discussions were held on how to deal with the great number of non-Laguna members. Perhaps as an attempt to gain neutrality, members began to vote for non-artists to serve as president. In 1936, George Emmons, former Chairman of General Electric, was elected.

World War II affected Laguna in several ways. Tourism was off, and some arts and crafts materials were rationed. Believing art was necessary in wartime to keep up the spirits and morale of the nation, the gallery continued its usual schedule of group and one-person exhibitions by member artists. But the Association also began to expand its aims by presenting traveling exhibitions of American art organized by museums in other locales, having nothing to do with California art or artists. The percentage of such exhibitions was small, but grew steadily in the post-war years, hinting at the philosophic change that would later turn the art gallery into a museum.

Another step toward conversion to a museum was taken when the Association decided to acquire a permanent art collection. In 1929, Anna Hills had said decidedly that the Association had no intention of collecting art. However, by the late 1930s it was becoming obvious that the early plein-air landscapists were a dying generation. This must have given the Association a sense of its own mortality, for in January of 1940 it held a show of the work of deceased Association members. Then, at a February 1941, meeting, Mrs. Lewis Moulton (Chair of the Permanent Collection Committee), recommended the establishment of a collection.

Shortly afterward, Mrs. William Swift Daniell, widow of the artist, took over the job of building the collection. Limited to deceased artists, by early 1951 it contained about twenty paintings by Elanor Colburn, Joseph Kleitsch, George Brandriff, Thomas L. Hunt and others. In the few months before the collection was to be shown at the opening of the newly remodeled gallery in the summer of 1951, Mrs. Daniell added works by George G. Symons, William Riddell, Anna Hills, William A. Griffith and Norman St. Clair, raising the total to nearly thirty. There was even talk of collecting some living artists.

In the post World War II era, while Mrs. Daniell worked to establish a collection, the Association made substantial financial gains. It decided as early as 1944 to expand its art gallery and this became its goal, culminating in the remodeling undertaken in 1950 - 51. The biggest boon to the building fund, which by 1946 stood at around $10,000, was a bequest from marine painter Frank Cuprien, the "Dean of Laguna artists." Cuprien, who had resided in Laguna since 1912, died without heirs on June 21, 1948. He left his house and property and all but a few of his paintings to the Association. The building fund, through his bequest, reached almost $45,000.

Finally, after nine months of construction, the new building was opened on July 3, 1951. The total cost was $50,000, including the remodeling of the old wing. That wing held an office and an entrance gallery where the Permanent Memorial Collection was hung. To the right of the entrance was the Cuprien Room, housing his paintings and serving as a library and director's room. The old upper-and-Iower gallery was hung with 100 paintings by members.

For the most part, the art gallery continued its conservative bent. By the early 1950s, it had found its niche as one of a number of "satellite" museums to the main Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art. While the majority of its shows still exhibited its members, it also became the forum for several local conservative art groups: the Businessmen's Art Institute, the California Watercolor Society, the Artists Guild of Southern California, the Society of Western Artists (an outgrowth of Sanity in Art) and the California Art Club, among others.

However, it found itself once again being challenged by modernism. Although the Association had been able to squelch the modernists in 1938, the postwar variety, the Abstract Expressionists, were much more virulent. Pressure began to build in such outlying areas as California in the late 1940s, when many artists either espoused the nonrepresentational style wholeheartedly, or else let modernism's stylistic elements intrude in their representational pieces.

The South Coast had a handful of modernists. The most important was probably John McLaughlin, ex-GI, who had traveled the world and at mid-life wanted to be a painter. He settled in Dana Point after the war and by 1948 was creating rectilinear, hard-edge canvases that began to win prizes from Los Angeles to San Diego. Concurrently, other less avant-garde moderns made their debut in Corona del Mar in 1951, calling themselves "Thirteen Moderns." They included Leonard Kaplan, Mabel Hutchinson, Joan Irving, Rex Brandt, David Vaughan and Phil Dike, among others.

Although the art gallery had established itself as a haven for conservative artists, it "bent" slightly in the late 1940s when it gave exhibitions to modernists Myrlyn Eaton, John McLaughlin, Leonard Kaplan, Roger Kuntz, and the "Nineteen Contemporary Moderns." However, the "generous gesture by the majority influence in the art gallery," as one Laguna reviewer saw it, did not initiate a trend, and the Association continued to be true to its conservative origins.

The history of the Laguna Beach Art Association is, like the history of any other social institution, one of political push and pull, and its successes and failures were due to a relatively small number of dedicated members. Although its progress may seem erratic, or its dogged focus on representational painting backwards, the Association showed progress between 1918 and 1955. It built and then expanded its art gallery. Even today, there are few towns of Laguna's modest population that can boast of such an imposing structure. Moreover, the Association enjoyed a steadily increasing membership. And, unlike some other associations organized for the benefit of artists, it served the community in many ways, including bringing exhibitions of out-of-town shows. The gallery was and is a major tourist attraction, and the Association is an institution that has contributed well to American art and to its local community, throughout its rich history.

(Additional information on the years 1955 - 1993 is discussed by Joanne L. Ratner in A History of the Laguna Art Museum, 1918-1993, co-authored by Ms. Ratner and Ms. Moure.)


About the author:

Nancy Dustin Wall Moure received her B.A. in Art from San Diego State College and her M.A. in Art History from UCLA. From 1968 to 1983 she was Assistant Curator of American Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She is author of the Dictionary of Art and Artists in Southern California Before 1930. Ms. Moure is a consultant to corporations and individuals interested in buying and selling art. She has guest curated several southern California exhibitions and written numerous articles for magazines and catalogues.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on November 27, 2007 with permission of the author and the Laguna Art Museum, granted to TFAO on August 2, 2007, and November 19, 2007, respectively. Ms. Moure's article pertains to a special exhibition that was on view at the Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, California, April 2 - July 11, 1993.

This text was also published in the Spring 1993 issue of American Art Review.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text, and to Bolton Colburn, director of the Laguna Art Museum.

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