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California’s Most Exciting Arts Scene Is Hiding in Laguna Beach

By Stacey Leasca

Oct 30, 2019

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This towering sculpture by John Seeman overlooks the ocean, where real whales migrate twice a year.

Photo by Shutterstock

This towering sculpture by John Seeman overlooks the ocean, where real whales migrate twice a year.

Originally founded as an arts colony, Laguna Beach continues to draw art lovers with its many galleries, museums, festivals, and public artworks.

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Laguna Beach may be known for its coves and beaches, but the coastal community is also home to a thriving arts scene. In addition to more than 100 galleries and artists’ studios, the town features several public artworks, a major art museum, and artsy festivals throughout the year. In fact, art is so ingrained in Laguna’s culture that it’s officially the law of the land. 

In 1986, the city adopted the Art in Public Places ordinance, which requires each new commercial development worth more than $225,000 to apply 1 percent of its total value toward the installation of original artworks. Alternatively, businesses can contribute 1.25 percent of their worth to Laguna’s Art-in-Lieu fund to be used toward future artworks, although a quick stroll through town reveals most choose the former option. 

Indeed, there’s so much art around Laguna that visitors can—and should—create their own walking tour to discover it all. “As a traveling art lover myself, I always start getting to know a new place by getting to know its art,” said Malcolm Warner, executive director of the Laguna Art Museum

As for how to begin your tour, Warner suggests heading straight to his museum for some background on California art. “I like to say that the Laguna Art Museum shows you the ‘art and soul’ of California,” he said. Next, he recommends hitting some of the town’s best galleries, including Sue Greenwood Fine Art, Saltfineart, Kelsey Michaels Fine Art, and the prestigious Peter Blake Gallery

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If you’re visiting during the summer, Warner advises checking out the annual Festival of Arts. “Unlike most art fairs, where galleries run the booths, the Festival of Arts consists of booths run by artists,” he said. “Often you get to buy a piece directly from the artist, which is always an interesting experience.” 

Come fall, guests shouldn’t miss the Art & Nature Festival. Hosted by the Laguna Art Museum, the fair centers around a large-scale performance or temporary installation on Main Beach. In 2018, artist Elizabeth Turk launched her Shoreline Project, which brought together 1,000 volunteers for a sunset performance on the beach with LED-illuminated umbrellas. 

Whether or not your trip coincides with an event, you should also make time to see all the public art around town. Below, our 10 favorite works that should be part of any Laguna art tour. 

Breaching Whale

Local artist John Seeman used glass and a combination of corten and stainless steel to build this 16-foot-tall sculpture (pictured above), which sits in Heisler Park overlooking the ocean. From its perch, visitors can see real-life whales migrating in winter and summer. 

Green Man with Red Birds

This serene artwork in Village Green Park depicts the protector of life.

Nestled among the trees in Village Green Park, this seven-foot-tall ceramic sculpture is said to represent the nurturer and protector of life. Its artist, Julia Klemek, described it as “part tree, part man with a heart of birds.” 

Sight and Sound 

Featuring a poem by the artist, this sculptural handrail in Brown’s Park is especially appealing at sunset.

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Created by California-based artist Raymond Persinger, this 12-foot sculptural handrail in Brown’s Park displays a poem written by the artist. The words, crafted from metal, wood, and stained glass, urge visitors to be present and appreciate the surrounding scenery. Stop by at sunset for a particularly magical viewing experience.   

Laguna Tortoise

This vivid piece was inspired by Aesop’s fable “The Tortoise and the Hare.”

This colorful sculpture by the late Laguna Beach artist Michele Taylor sits in the middle of Bluebird Park, just waiting to delight visitors of all ages. Made from concrete, ceramic, and blown glass, the piece is massive, measuring nine feet long and weighing nearly two tons. Inspired by Aesop’s fable “The Tortoise and the Hare,” it is meant to encourage humbleness and determination. 

North and South Waves

Find these steel-and-granite waves on either side of the entrance to Forest Avenue.

This two-part piece by local artist Larry Gill sits on either side of the entrance to Forest Avenue, welcoming visitors to the town’s celebrated shopping strip. Made from stainless steel and granite, the abstract waves relay a sense of the ocean’s beauty and power, just steps from the actual shore. 

Time Connected

Scott and Naomi Schoenherr’s charming piece serves as the focal point of the Heisler Park sculpture garden.

Inspired by all the little moments that make up a lifetime, this sculpture by Laguna artists Scott and Naomi Schoenherr features interlocking bronze wheels, decorated with ceramic tiles that feature local plants and insects. The piece is accompanied by large benches and mosaic sidewalk installations, helping connect visitors to one another as well as to Laguna Beach and the ocean. Find it at the center of the sculpture garden in Heisler Park. 


Facing the ocean, this compelling sculpture emphasizes the connection between humans and the Earth.

On the edge of a cliff overlooking Treasure Island Beach, visitors can find this 10-foot bronze statue, which depicts a woman made from seaweed, starfish, and flowers. France-based artist Linda Brunker installed the piece facing the sea to show how all things are connected, including humans and the Earth. 

Semper Memento (Always Remember)

Made of steel beams from the World Trade Center, this moving artwork memorializes those who died in the 9/11 attacks.

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Located at Monument Point in Heisler Park, Semper Memento may be the most emotionally enduring piece in town. Laguna Beach artist Jorg Dubin created the work in 2011 to memorialize the lives lost in the 9/11 attacks, using steel beams salvaged from the World Trade Center wreckage. The base of the sculpture is shaped like the Pentagon, an internal planter represents the Pennsylvania crash site, and a polished, stainless steel sphere sits in the center, allowing visitors to see their reflection and become part of the memorial. 


Grab a seat on this functional sculpture and watch the waves roll in.

Designed to resemble the surrounding rock formations and waves, this five-piece functional sculpture by local artist Gerard Basil Stripling adds to the tranquility of Treasure Island Park. Visitors can relax on one of the bronze pieces while watching the ocean below. 

The Whaling Wall

Laguna Beach is home to Robert Wayland’s original “Whaling Wall” mural.

The first Whaling Wall mural appeared in Laguna Beach in 1981, but it was painted over after a dispute with a neighbor in 1986. Not one to despair, Laguna artist Robert Wayland traversed the globe instead, painting his signature whale-themed murals in such countries as Canada, France, Japan, and Australia. In 2019, he returned to Laguna and repainted the original Whaling Wall in the exact place it once stood. Head to the parking lot of the historic Hotel Laguna to see the new piece in all its glory.

>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Travel Guide to Laguna Beach and Dana Point

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