Things Got Gurgling at Art Museum

Unseen hands, hidden in the second-floor gallery, gently tugged at the ropes attached to the circular curtain that dominated the rotunda of the San Diego Museum of Art.

The blue cloth cocoon resisted for a moment before floating upward to reveal the triple-tiered fountain that is the centerpiece of the newly named John M. and Sally B. Thornton Rotunda.

This event actually occurred twice last week, at Thursday’s formal dedication of the fountain and rotunda and at the lavish gala given Saturday by the Thorntons for 340 guests. On both occasions, the guests uncorked an appreciative murmur that gave some participants the sensation that they had been plunged into a vat of champagne. The feeling was reinforced by the flutes of champagne that the crowd raised in a double toast to the Thorntons and the fountain.

At Thursday’s dedication, museum President Joseph Hibben told the 90 in attendance that “some of you may find this fountain similar to that at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (in New York). We would like to be more and more like the Met.”


Sally Thornton took a lighthearted tone as she threw the switch that sent water bubbling up through the fountain’s pipes. “I threatened to put goldfish in the basins--and maybe I will,” she teased.

Guests at both events hurriedly searched trouser pockets and handbags for coins to toss into the fountain’s brightly tiled pool; Dolly Maw got there first with a newly minted penny. At the gala, bits of unusual lore and surprising observations made the rounds. It seems, for example, that the Chinese hold that, if a borrowed coin is deposited in a fountain, the good luck goes to the person who lent it. And then there is the case of the martini-glass-shaped tiles in the pool’s floor; Charles Melville counted them and noted that it takes exactly 10 to describe a 90-degree arc in the pool’s circumference.

The Thorntons gave the gala as another highlight in a relationship with the museum that dates back to John’s membership on the board of trustees in the early 1970s and which has become more pronounced in recent years with their sponsorship of such exhibits as “American Masters: The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection” in 1985 and the 1987 presentation of “American Women Artists, 1830-1930.” Sally serves as vice president of the board of trustees.

Presumably in deference to the fountain, the Thorntons took pains to ensure that Saturday’s gala was one of the splashiest in the museum’s history. Because of the rotunda’s Spanish-Italian architecture, the evening took on a predominantly Spanish theme in such details as the tableau vivant of Spanish dancers who posed, with a guitarist, on the grand staircase. Later, flamenco dancers made the rounds between sets by the party’s two bands. Women dressed to the eyebrows; Vicki Rogers assessed the situation neatly by stating, “When you’re invited to one of Sally’s parties, you know you’d better gussie up.”

The museum itself was dressed up for the occasion, with dinner tables centered by fountain-like floral arrangements that overflowed with red and pink blooms. The sheer size of the crowd dictated that dinner seating be spread through the American Gallery, the Asian Court, Gallery 12 and Copley Auditorium; guests in each room dined on an elaborate menu of wild mushroom ravioli and roast rack of lamb.

The menu was accompanied by three types of champagne from Temecula’s Culbertson Winery, in which the Thorntons hold an interest. The same champagne will be poured at the gala that will follow the presidential inauguration of George Bush, an event at which a number of the guests at Saturday’s event will be present. Among them will be banker (and former museum President) Gordon Luce and his wife, Karon; Ruth Carpenter; and Dorene and John Whitney.

Museum director Steven Brezzo found himself hard-pressed to describe the gala. “The scale of the evening is unprecedented,” he said. He had high praise for the hosts. “The fountain is a fitting testimony to the Thorntons’ magnificent enthusiasm and generosity, not only for the museum, but for the arts in San Diego in general.”