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laguna beach - a history of the arts

Photograph courtesy of the
Laguna Beach Visitors & Conference Bureau

With its bursts of vibrant colors, lush flora and seaside landscape, Laguna Beach is an impressionist painting come to life. It’s for this very reason that Norman St. Clair, a San Francisco artist, abandoned his cramped fog-laden studio in Northern California to become a permanent resident of Laguna Beach. St. Claire arrived in 1903 and masterfully captured the beauty and essence of Laguna Beach on canvas. He is credited with establishing the town as an artists’ colony, a reputation that has carried on for more than a century.

Photograph courtesy of the Laguna Beach Visitors & Conference Bureau

the visual arts
Not long after St. Claire settled in, artists from all over began the exodus to Laguna Beach for the opportunity to paint in the open air. These plein air artists borrowed and expanded the techniques of their Impressionist counterparts by applying loose applications of paints, incorporating strong color patterns, and making light an important element of their expressions.


Laguna Art Museum

The summer of 1918 was filled with many firsts for Laguna Beach. On July 27 the town’s first art gallery, what is now known as the Laguna Art Museum, opened its doors and hosted the town’s very first exhibition. More than 300 visitors crammed the modest building in order to view nearly 100 paintings on display in both oil and watercolor, as well as several pieces of sculpture. There were 25 participating artists, and by the end of its three-week run nearly 2,000 people had signed the guest register. That August the 150-charter member Laguna Beach Art Association was founded, and the following year the association became a chapter of the American Federation of Arts. By the end of the 1920s, the band of Laguna Beach artists were being lauded at galleries across the nation as their works of California’s rugged coastlines, verdant hills, vibrant flora and other environmental elements were well received.

Pageant of the Masters

With each passing year, the Laguna Beach Art Association continued to play an instrumental role in promoting the area as a cultural destination. In 1932, in the thrust of the Great Depression, the birth of a summer art festival took hold and was held on the heels of the Los Angeles Olympic Games in the hopes that visitors would make the pilgrimage south to Laguna Beach. It became a community effort as the entire town helped to transform Laguna Beach into a seamless art gallery for the weeklong happening. Highlights included art exhibitions, community plays, outdoor pageants, a parade, outdoor street market, tours of artists’ studios and residents’ gardens. The pinnacle of the event was the Living Pictures show, the brainchild of artist and vaudevillian Lolita Perine. Perine dressed residents in costumes and seated them behind makeshift frames – unbeknownst to Perine, the residents and those who came to watch—this was the inception to Pageant of the Masters. In 1935 the concept was expanded into its present-day format by local construction worker, realtor and amateur artist Roy Ropp. For the next several years the pageant moved from venue to venue until it found a permanently home in 1941 within the folds of Laguna Canyon.

Sawdust Art Festival

a feted festival
In the mid 1960s a group of artists, dissatisfied with the Festival of Arts jury system, started the Laguna Beach Fine Arts Association. The group launched its first show in 1967, on North Coast Highway’s Gallery Row. In 1968 a friendly rift had developed between the traditionalists and the avant-garde of the rapidly expanding organization. This gave birth to the ‘Splinters’, the traditional artists, who continued their show on Gallery Row, while the 'Sawdust Art Festival', a more contemporary group, opened their own show in Laguna Canyon.

In 1969 the Splinters produced a highly successful exhibition called “Art-A-Fair ‘69”. Subsequently, they renamed their festival, elected officers and jurors, and established the Art-A-Fair Festival.

Laguna Art-A-Fair has been located on numerous properties in Laguna Beach. Today, and since 1988, 125 artists and master crafts people exhibit their work in the heart of the festival district, located at 777 Laguna Canyon Road. Laguna Art-A-Fair is a juried art show recognized nationwide as one of the premier exhibitions of artwork by local and national artists. The organization is an artist cooperative, run by and for its membership.

The Laguna Playhouse

performing arts
Not long after the Laguna Beach Art Association formed, the Laguna Playhouse was founded in 1920. It began with a group of thespian citizens who assembled in a living room to establish a theater, initially offering readings and performances in private homes and storefronts. In 1924, at a staggering cost of $5,000, a permanent playhouse was built along Ocean Avenue. It was sold to the city during the Great Depression and leased back by the group, who entertained troops during Word War II.

Famous faces have graced the playhouse’s stage throughout the years. An unknown Harrison Ford appeared at the Laguna Playhouse in 1965 in a production of Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body. Others have included Barbara Eden, Tony Tennille and Marlo Thomas. In 1969 the Moulton Theatre was built along Laguna Canyon Road through private funds replacing the original playhouse, which was eventually demolished. Today, the Laguna Playhouse remains the West Coast’s oldest in continuous operation theater.

Laguna College of Art & Design

the art of learning
Recognizing a need to educate the next generation of artists, The Laguna Beach School of Art was founded in 1961 on the grounds of the Festival of Arts. The college moved to its current location 16 years later, a setting designed to coalesce with its environmental landscape. The name was eventually changed to the Art Institute of Southern California and, to further established its identity, the school was renamed the Laguna College of Art & Design in 2002. The name change reflects the school's heritage in the community and more clearly defines the educational mission of the institution.

Laguna College of Art & Design helps prepare students for careers as creative artists and designers in both a culturally and ethnically diverse world through its curriculum. The campus is home to aspiring artists availing themselves to a choice of five majors: Drawing & Painting, Graphic Design, Illustration, Game Art and Animation. All programs are accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, as well as by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.

Photograph courtesy of
Visit Laguna Beach

art in progress
Laguna Beach continues to be an evolving work of art and axis for artistic expression. The modest gallery that opened in 1918 has flourished into a world-class museum boasting a permanent collection that covers a breadth of work. In addition to the Laguna Art Museum, there are countless galleries, performing arts venues, and array of creative organizations operating within Laguna Beach’s city limits.




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