Balboa Island Museum Lands on 2020 OC Favorites List

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Interior of Balboa Island Museum / photo courtesy of Balboa Island Museum

By Pete Weitzner | Special to the NB Indy

Not even a decade ago, a visitor to Balboa Island would have had to stumble across the Balboa Island Museum to find it. So would most locals.

What a difference a decade makes.

In 2020, the Balboa Island Museum Newport Beach was one of four museums chosen as Orange County’s Best, in the Los Angeles Times annual poll of readers for their favorite people, places and services in Orange County.

The others: Bowers Museum, Discovery Cube Orange County, and Orange County Museum of Art.

Balboa Island Museum past-president Shirley Pepys / photo by Chris Trela

“I couldn’t have been happier, maybe a little shocked,” Shirley Pepys said of the accolade. Pepys was the museum’s president for the last five years, and easily it’s biggest life force for the last ten years.

The Times story described the museum as one that “pays homage to the Island so many of us know, love and call home – and a place that continues to capture the imaginations and hearts of visitors the world over.”

There are well over 40 museums in Orange County, many of them top caliber. Balboa’s wasn’t one of those in 2010. It was a one-room collection above Island Market on South Bay Front.

Back in the Day

“Wasn’t a museum, it was a storage room…a storage room with some pictures tacked up,” Pepys recalled.

Balboa Island Museum supporters Sharon and Bob Lambert

Early meetings would be held over tea at board members’ homes, patrons like Past-president Sharon Lambert and her late husband Bob.

“It was dying on the vine,” Lambert recalled. “We thought if we make it, we make it, but let’s try. I felt so strongly about the history of Balboa island. We put some money into the museum, but we didn’t have the means, but I said, ‘if the residents of the Island want it…and they did.’”

In 2011 they found a new location, just over the bridge at the entrance to the Island.

“Bob and I got very involved when we moved to the new location …we had only a few thousand dollars in the bank…but I saw this location and Shirley took care of setting it up, we nailed, we hammered…a couple of the happiest years,” Lambert said.

Visitors crowd around the John Wayne exhibit at the old Balboa Island Museum in the cottage at 331 Marine Avenue / photo by Chris Trela

It was a vintage cottage, and it was perfect. It had a patio for entertaining and fundraising.

“It was a place for me to stay out of trouble,” Pepys said, newly retired after two long, successful entrepreneurial ventures. “And the community benefitted by it.”

The museum grew and prospered at 331 Marine Avenue. And then Pepys led the next big step up in 2018, into the former “Art for the Soul” building at 210B Marine.

Pepys, now President, had to convince her board, founders like the late Jack Northrup.

Balboa Island Museum founding member Jack Northrup

“He never got to see this and that makes me very sad. Jack’s dream was a permanent home for the museum,” Pepys said.

“When we moved over to the new location, I thought oh my gosh, it’s so big…but then I went over to the location and I thought there’s such a wonderful vibe in here,” Lambert said. “And then I had my moment, I walked outside and saw oh, the walkway goes straight to the museum…that was my moment…and I thought if anyone can do something like this…it’s Shirley. It’s very gratifying.”

A generous grant from George and Julia Argyros helped secure the new lease, and with Pepys leading the fundraising, the community met the challenge and stepped up to support the renovation of the new home.

The “new” Balboa Island Museum Newport Beach— recently re-branded, having been established in 1999 as the nonprofit Balboa Island Museum and Historical Society – features some fifteen rotating exhibits, homages to the people and events dating to the late 19th century, that transformed the Island and Newport Harbor into a place of world renown.

John Wayne exhibit at the new Balboa Island Museum / photo by Chris Trela

The exhibits showcase famed Newport developers like William Collins and James McFadden; the Golden Age of Hollywood on The Harbor, the 1940s to 60s when stars from Humphrey Bogart to John Wayne found safe harbor in Newport; the surfing legends including Duke Kahanamoku and seminal events like the 1953 Boy Scout Jamboree.

The selection as an OC favorite comes on roughly the 20th anniversary of the museum, and the second anniversary at its new and historic 2,200-square-foot home.

“It makes everyone who comes here feel that they are part of it. Maybe they can’t afford to live here, but it belongs to everyone,” Lambert said.

“A lot of visitors will write down that it’s the best small museum I’ve ever been to…they used to say that about the cottage too,” Pepys said. “There’s no guard at the door. It’s free. I think it makes people happy when they walk in here. It’s fun.”

Shirley Pepys with a model of the Balboa Pavilion / photo by Chris Trela

Milestone Year

Becoming part of the Fab Four of OC museums in 2020 has certified that supporters are making good on their mission to collect, preserve and promote the culture and history of Balboa Island and Newport Beach.

Other Balboa Island Museum highlights from 2020:

  • Opened the Wyland Foundation exhibit, art and merchandise in the Museum Gallery, celebrating the work and legacy of its founder, renowned artist and conservationist, Wyland. The exhibition focuses on the artist’s legacy, including custom-created gifts and signature artworks. All proceeds benefit initiatives for clean water and healthy oceans. Wyland will be featured in the Museum Gallery until early 2021.
  • Filmed Oral Histories, now featured on local Channel 3.
  • Showcased multiple exhibits at the Newport Beach Public Library Central Branch.
  • Executive Director Tiffany Pepys and her team kept the doors “open” online and curbside. Pepys shrewdly stocked up on jigsaw puzzles, hot seller to shelter-in-placers.
  • Bolstered the “Boy Scout Jamboree” showcase, homage to the iconic 1953 mass gathering at the future site of Fashion Island, adding new items, kudos to donor Joel Holmberg. A handmade Galleon ship joined the Beek Family Exhibit, amid a “surge in object donations,” Collections Manager Brittany Webb said.
  • Paula Castanon took the reigns as president this fall. “The museum is a remarkable place and brings us closer to our own history,” Castanon said with the announcement. Pepys is staying on the board and will focus on marketing and fundraising.
  • Membership hit 500. All-time high.
  • The museum premiered its first film, “The Golden Age of Newport Harbor” featuring Tim Mang. “What a wild time that was,” BYC Commodore David Beek said after the screening. View the film’s trailer at https://youtu.be/B0JHyWmB44E. Attend the virtual premiere (anytime, anywhere) at https://www.balboaislandmuseum.org/events/. The DVD is now available at the museum store and online.
Artifacts on display at the Balboa Island Museum / photo by Chris Trela

Also key to the Museum’s surge in popularity and relevance was Pepys and partners’ vision to remake the modern museum as a gallery, a museum, a retail store – and a gathering place for the community.

The film premiere was such an event, one of the largest in Newport Beach in the Covid era, hosted safely by Balboa Yacht Club in September.

Community events at the museum had to be scaled back in 2020.

“We’re eager to resume them,” said Executive Director Tiffany Pepys. “I miss events like our Veteran’s Pinning Ceremony.”

Balboa Island Museum is located at 210 Marine Ave., Balboa Island. Normal Museum hours are Monday – Thursday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Friday – Sunday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. State COVID restrictions may impact those days and times, but the Museum Store is still open daily.

For more information on the Balboa Island Museum Newport Beach, please visit https://balboaislandmuseum.org

Exterior of Balboa Island Museum / courtesy of Balboa Island Museum
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