Times Staff Writer

The Timken Gallery, like the proverbial prophet of old, is virtually unacknowledged in its own community. Twenty years after its opening, the glories hidden in the tiny Timken still are appreciated more by art experts around the world than by most San Diegans.

Those treasures range from Eastman Johnson's popular "The Cranberry Harvest"--an American pastoral scene bulging with the shared humanity of Nantucket Island berry pickers--to a vivid Guido Cagnacci 17th-Century still life--a flask of wilting red and white carnations set against a nearly black background and attended variously by a lizard, grasshopper and moths, a compressed Renaissance vision of entropy.

At the heart of the small Timken collection are works by Dutch, Flemish, French and Italian masters from the early Renaissance and a small grouping of 18th- and 19th-Century Americans. Among the better-known of these artists are Rembrandt, Rubens, Fragonard, Luca di Tomme, Winslow Homer, Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley.

For its size, the Timken is a relatively well-endowed art institution. Ironically, those endowments, which provide a couple hundred thousand dollars each year for acquisitions and cover the Timken's annual operating expenses, contribute to the gallery's problems with local awareness. There is no financial pressure to sell admission tickets, to entice the public into the gallery or to constantly mount and market exhibitions. Indeed, the gallery charges no admission, a fact which tends to discourage a financial need for community relations.

"The gallery has a unique function in the community," said Hal Fischer, the Timken's development director. "It's the only fine arts museum in the county which operates on an admission-free basis. That may contribute to it being somewhat aloof."

Indeed, the Timken's strengths also contribute to its weaknesses. Attorney Walter Ames established the gallery in 1965 as "a gift to the city," his guiding concerns being the establishment of a standard of excellence in acquisitions and a provision for high-quality conservatorship of the paintings. From the beginning, Ames viewed the gallery as a small-scale operation. For him, the choice was clear. Rather than acquire a lot of medium-quality artworks, the Timken's policy was to buy only the best available.

Lacking formal training in the visual arts, he made friends with experts including Alfred Frankfurter, editor of Art News; Cecil Gould, retired keeper of the collection of the National Gallery in London, and David Brown, an Englishman whose personal collection is on view at the San Diego Museum of Art. Ames also invited scholars to serve as acting directors of the gallery. He would bring in people such as A.B. de Vries, past director of the Mauritshaus in Amsterdam; Agnes Mongan of the Fogg Museum; her sister, Elizabeth Mongan, of the National Gallery, and George Stout, past director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Each of these assisted in acquisitions, each inevitably focusing on his or her own area of expertise.

Today, Ames' daughter, Nancy Ames Petersen, is the Timken's director. She has presided over several remarkable purchases and pushed to develop all elements of the gallery, especially in the field of community outreach. While holding to her father's dictum of quality first, Petersen's leadership has diverged from his significantly. Because of the museum's small scale of operation, "Dad said there's no job here for a young, energetic man. I disagree."

A year and a half ago, Petersen hired the gallery's first associate director and curator, Grant Holcomb, formerly curator of the San Diego Museum of Art. Holcomb, who left last month to become director of the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, N.Y., established the idea of a series of exhibitions built around an individual painting in the gallery and bolstered by accompanying lectures.

For the present, Petersen is pushing educational programs under her assistant, Gay Michal Nay, such as a student docent project and a senior citizens' project. With Fischer's assistance, she is building a five-year plan, and the gallery will celebrate its 20th anniversary in October and November with the exhibition of Samuel F.B. Morse's huge, six-foot by nine-foot canvas, "Gallery of the Louvre," on loan from the Terra Museum of American Art in Evanston, Ill.

Petersen, who sees the Timken in a state of transition, will not replace Holcomb. Rather than appoint another associate director, she plans to bring in a series of scholars--the "young men" her father did not think would work out at the Timken. "I would like to have a scholar who's fresh and who hasn't published much, to come in and really take apart and study (our collection)." Along those lines Petersen and Fischer are working on grants to fund the $100,000 conservation work on the Petrus Christus "Death of the Virgin," which would be accomplished as a public exhibition.

Perhaps the best example of the spirit that drives the Timken Gallery is the story of the gallery's most spectacular acquisition, John Singleton Copley's "The Portrait of Mrs. Thomas Gage," purchased in 1984 through a "blind sale" for $1.4 million.

"Grant made a courageous choice in supporting that purchase," Petersen said. In fact, the acquisition involved a trade-off in which Petersen had to sacrifice her father's final purchase, a piece by Frederic Remington, sought by a dealer who offered her a loan in return to buy the Copley.

"I muddled over that one a long time, but Dad would have said the Gage is the better painting. You can't let sentimentality stand in the way of what will improve the quality of the collection."

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