Natalie Kotsch had a vision: to make the Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum a world-class destination for people looking to soak in the area’s rich surf culture.
But how to create such a place has long been debated. And now the city is looking for the next keepers and curators of the iconic Surf City museum, with a public bid planned for early next year.
Formal talks have been underway since 2018 about the museum potentially partnering with the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center in San Clemente, known as the “Smithsonian of Surf” for having the world’s largest collection of surf memorabilia.
But some Huntington Beach surfers scoff at the idea, arguing that the Huntington museum should stay under local management. Some opponents have lobbied the City Council for the past month, asking officials to open the management-agreement process to the public to generate alternative ideas.
The Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum (HBISM) has a storied history. It was founded by Canadian native Kotsch, a non-surfer who fell in love with the culture and sport. She started the museum in 1987 and ran the nonprofit throughout her battle with cancer, until she passed away in 2014.
The property is owned by the city, designated as a historic building that can only operate as a surf museum. Visit Huntington Beach, the city’s tourism bureau, is the lease holder on a month-to-month basis and subleases to HBISM, whose board of directors voted to explore the partnership with the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center (SHACC) late last year.
Visit Huntington Beach agreed in 2012 to lease the building from the city to help maintain and manage the museum when the site was at risk of being taken over by the state’s redevelopment agency. VHB helped to renovate the building, added a welcome center in the lobby and funded staff, including an executive director.
The tourism bureau partnered with the museum in 2014 for the “100 years of surfing” celebration and led the effort to build the world’s largest surfboard, which earned a spot in the Guinness World Records and hangs next to the building.
“Monetarily, we have supplied nearly $250,000 in services and cash to keep the museum doors open,” said VHB executive director Kelly Miller. “Unfortunately, that narrative is not being accurately portrayed by several people in the community.”
Diana Dehm, who served as executive director of the Huntington museum until earlier this year, has been a regular speaker at recent council meetings, arguing against an SHACC deal and asking the city to open a bid process to find the next managers of the museum.
“It’s a sound business decision to understand other innovative, local options for managing and running our surfing museum to its full potential,” she said at a meeting last month. “I can assure you, we are no annex. After all, our brand is unique and we have fought long and hard to maintain our name and trademark our name, Surf City USA. … It’s where we came from, who we are and who we will always be.”
An online petition circulated by Dehm and others generated more than 3,000 signatures, referring to SHACC as an “inland franchise,” and calling the deal a takeover that “de-localizes the Surf City USA culture and history, our Huntington Beach surfing brand.”
Founder Dick Metz inspired the trip around the world for friend and filmmaker Bruce Brown that resulted in the landmark surf film “The Endless Summer.” He started a string of Hobie Surf Shop retail stores alongside Hobie Alter, before creating SHACC, also a nonprofit, which helped the Smithsonian create its first-ever surfing exhibit in 2015.
Peter “PT” Townend, a longtime Huntington Beach surf museum board member who recently stepped down to help the two parties facilitate a partnership, said the Huntington museum has been run more like a clubhouse in recent years — not as a place people actually come to visit.
“We don’t have a full-time curator. Six installations in six years? I’m sorry but that’s not a museum,” Townend said. “And that’s the reason the conversation is going on — so we can get curation on a regular basis. That’s why a museum exists.”
In those six years, three installations came out of Townend’s personal collection and from artist Dave Reynolds; one was put up in conjunction with the National Scholastic Surfing Association; and the most recent two — “Surf to Skate” and “Origins of Surf” — were curated by SHACC, he said.
“The whole mission was always to do things together because they have the best collection and the best curation,” he said of the San Clemente museum.
Casual talks about a partnership between the two museums actually have been going on for 20 years, said chairman of the board Brett Barnes, a longtime friend of Kotsch.
The idea was that a local exhibit dedicated to Huntington Beach would always be displayed, along with rotating exhibits managed by SHACC, he said. There would be an advisory board with Huntington Beach surfers and all inventory donated to the Huntington Beach museum would remain its property.
Currently, HBISM is not fiscally doing enough to survive, Barnes said.
“Who is the city going to get to operate it, and where’s our funding going to come from?” Townend asked. “Despite what these people say, it hasn’t been living up to be a world-class surfing museum.”
Glenn Brumage, executive director of SHACC, said in a statement that the two museums have always “cooperated and collaborated on a professional level and will continue to do so in the future in regards to sharing artifacts, assisting one another with exhibits and working together for the common purposes and goals of preserving surfing’s rich history, heritage and culture for future generations.”
There are no formal negotiations regarding moving, annexing, renaming, or leasing the Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum, he wrote in a statement.
The idea of bringing SHACC aboard to manage the museum in a more professional way has much to do with the future, with hopes of luring the 2028 Olympic Games surfing competition to Huntington Beach, said Miller, of the tourism bureau.
In its initial proposal, Visit Huntington Beach would have funded a partnership with SHACC over three years — paying $150,000 the first year, $125,000 the second, and $100,000 the third for management and curation, according to a statement by VHB.
Whether VHB would fund a different proposal for a sublease agreement when the bids open up in early 2020 is unknown.
“Where that stands now, we’re not sure,” Miller said.