Best Museum without Walls: Tim Rudnick’s Venice Oceanarium

By Jessica Koslow

Have you ever seen grunion run at midnight at the edge of the ocean? Or looked at sand from all over the world through a microscope under the white tent at the end of the Venice Pier on a Sunday? Or walked by a circle of people in November reading “Moby Dick” out loud, one at a time through a microphone, surrounded by a huge actual whalebone at the breakwater on Venice Beach?

Each one of these sea-centric activities is hosted by the Venice Oceanarium, a museum without walls since 1995, founded by Tim Rudnick.

In the late ’80s, when Rudnick was in his mid-40s, he decided to go back to school.

“One of my daughters, Pesha, gave me a book for my birthday with the inscription, ‘To dad, who knows everything.’ That made me want to find out more,” shares Rudnick.

So, he headed back to class, enrolling in every inexpensive college course he could find. His favorite subject was marine biology, especially after completing a Santa Monica College course with Ed Tarvyd.

“On the first day of class he came out and said, ‘I’m the happiest man in the world,’” says Rudnick. “I wasn’t particularly happy at that time, and I thought, ‘I want to be like him.’”

Rudnick has always been drawn to the ocean. For a period of 15 years, he swam in the Pacific every single day. He has lived three blocks from Venice Beach since 1968.

Years ago, while walking down the beach, he spotted a dead Thornback ray with a fishing hook still in its mouth.

“I thought, ‘If I don’t try to educate people about this, who will?’” says Rudnick.

Establishing the Venice Oceanarium allows Rudnick to do more than share his love of everything aquatic — Rudnick focuses on environmental education, which includes the effects of climate change. He has taught at Ecole Claire Fontaine and Oakwood Recreation Center, both in Venice.

Before the pandemic, he and his loyal volunteers set up tables every Sunday from 11 3 p.m. at the end of the Venice Pier under a white tent with specimens to look at and touch, pencils and markers to draw with, and books to browse.

The Sunday ritual sparked an idea, which is the Oceanarium’s current goal: to build an airy permanent pavilion at the end of the Venice Pier.

“The arts are an integral part of our teaching program: poetry, readings, drawing lessons,” says Rudnick.

Pre-COVID, each Sunday Rudnick arranged eight rectangular wooden signs along the railings of the pier highlighting different quotes about the sea, like this one by Herman Melville:

“Yes, as everyone knows meditation and water are wedded forever.”

Those Sunday outings by the museum are currently on pause, but the Oceanarium plans to host its annual marathon reading of “Moby Dick” on Venice Beach Nov. 21 to 22 with masks, social distancing and plenty of enthusiasm for the intangible call of the sea.

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