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.
As the final vote in all its programming, he is able to guide the museum's artistic direction — right down to what is showcased and how. Warner also leads fundraising and development efforts.
Laser-focused on ensuring that visitors enjoy their time at the museum, he spearheaded changes in staff structure, made new appointments, spruced up the building and revamped the museum store.
He also decided that it would be beneficial to stay open until 9 p.m. every Thursday, offering guests a series of talks, concerts, films and more. These events brought in 10,000 visitors in 2013, and in October, attendance was up by 13% and membership by 18% from the same time a year ago.
Under his watchful eye, the museum has expanded its educational outreach, which has allowed 2,400 school-aged children to enjoy its summer art camp, tours and other activities. The organization is also teaming up with an increasing number of local art groups, including Laguna Beach Live! and the Laguna Dance Festival.
Considering himself blessed to be able to work with objects of great beauty and significance every day, Warner is particularly proud of the museum's recent "Art and Nature" initiative — during which Jim Denevan created an illumination on Main Beach, former state librarian Kevin Starr discussed attitudes toward nature throughout California's history, and 500 people attended the festival of family events — and work is already underway to bring it back this year. Up first, though, is a Thiebaud-centric show in the spring.
"I knew it enjoyed great support among the community, but have only realized since being here for a while what a deep-seated pride Laguna Beach takes in its museum," he said. "I'm also taken aback by the fondness that so many of the top California artists have for us. It's quite a boon to have someone like Wayne Thiebaud on your side."
Echoing the sentiment of nonprofit directors everywhere, Warner finds that funding can be challenging. It is true, he said, that additional resources would enable the museum to present a more robust schedule of projects. But its existing supporters are generous and loyal — leaving no room for complaint, he said.
While people with a similar background might choose to teach, Warner lives for the buildup and response to shows. And his colleagues round out the overall experience.
"They're professionals, but they're working here because they want to, not just to earn a living," he said. "It makes for a very pleasant day-to-day work environment, and also for a willingness to pitch in that sometimes still amazes me. No one ever says, 'That's not my job.' They just do it."
Grace Kook-Anderson, the museum's curator of contemporary art, praised Warner for his willingness to experiment and casual approach to the job.
"We have a very team-oriented environment here that is further supported by Malcolm," she wrote in an email. "We have a ping-pong table in the middle of our offices … some of our best brainstorming sessions and team-effort discussions take place during a game of ping-pong."
Warner's deep love for art keeps him happy in a job that he says doesn't always feel like work. At home, though, it's a slightly different story.
His wife is a singer, violinist and member of Laguna Beach Live! who shares her husband's passion for creativity. But not so much their children, Charlie, 15, a varsity soccer player at Laguna Beach High School, and Madeline, 19, a sophomore at Montreal's McGill University.
"There have been some difficult moments when I've forced the kids to look around yet another church in England or France or Italy when they'd much rather be doing something else," Warner said, laughing. "But they are both warming up to art a little now."
—Features Editor Michael Miller also contributed to this story.