When Julie Perlin Lee moves on from her position as executive director of the Catalina Island Museum on April 23, she’ll leave behind a financially healthier, physically larger, artistically and educationally wider-ranging organization that, since her arrival in 2016, has evolved into Avalon’s creative and social hub.
“There is no way to overstate the positive impact that Julie and her family have had on not only the museum but the city of Avalon and our special community,” said Ron Bevins, chair of the Catalina Island Museum Board of Trustees.
Because of that community and her fondness for it, when Lee was asked which exhibitions she’s most proud of having presented, she instead talked about the annual museum fundraiser she developed that will help ensure the museum remains near the center of Avalon life.
“I guess that’s what I’m most proud of, because it will continue to support the museum long after I’m gone,” said Lee, who will become executive director of Laguna Art Museum on May 3. “And I’m proud of how we did it. It was Catalina Casual, really fun, like two and half hours, a fast-paced event that raised a lot of money. People have a really good time at it.”
In many ways, the museum Lee led mirrors the fundraiser she described. For example, if you were to go on the Catalina Island Museum website right now, you’d see postings for the poignant—Gayle Garner Roski’s watercolors of her deepwater dive to the remains of the Titanic sharing space—with the pleasant, Charles Phoenix’s upcoming, April 10 presentation of his “Catalinaland” slide show. There is an ongoing exhibition dealing with the island’s history mixed with sculptor Elizabeth Turk’s “Tipping Point,” which addresses animal extinction and the fate of the planet.
All in all, it’s a lineup the museum has always tried to hold to: presenting something for everyone and mood, whether they be islanders or visitors.
“All of those things, you know, you do your best to serve the community,” she said. “It’s hard enough to compete with the beach, so you’re always trying to make a connection with someone, whether it be through art, history or something fun. And you have to do it keeping in mind you have some very different people who come here, you have the people who arrive on a boat that day and the people who live here year-round.”
Lee and her family—husband David Michael Lee, son Alistar and daughter Anzonette—have lived full-time on the island for nearly five years. She says they have all “fallen in love,” with the island and, besides the museum, what she will miss most is “seeing the stars clearly every night.”
That and the golf carts. Seriously.
“I love the golf cart life!” Lee said. “I wish I could drive a golf cart the rest of my life. Just toodle around town, fun and zippy. You see, you have to understand, it’s just not the golf cart, it’s all the other things that go along with it: no traffic, no stoplights. I’m going to miss that.”
Anyone who’s been to Laguna on a weekend knows that the city has plenty of traffic and stoplights. Of course, it also has a museum with a sterling reputation and lots of history. Laguna, is in fact, the second oldest art museum in the state and the only one to feature exclusively California content. That combination of art and history was a mix that Lee found she couldn’t turn down.
Plus, the move is a return home for Lee who was raised in Costa Mesa and Irvine, went to college at Cal State Fullerton and worked at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana before relocating to Catalina.
Though she says she “can’t wait to see what’s ahead,” in Laguna, her excitement can’t be any greater than her husband’s, who, for the past four years, has been commuting to his teaching job in Orange County.
“Yeah, my husband really has been the hero in all of this.”
As excited as she is for the future, Lee says there is no doubt her family will return to the island. As will her memory and pride.
“It’s always hard to leave a place you love.”