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New Name for La Jolla Museum : * Art: Tired of confusion with other venues, the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art is spicing up its identity.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What’s in a name?

Plenty, if you ask officials at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, who are paying tens of thousands of dollars to an internationally known graphic-design firm to develop a new logo for another name change, the second in two years at the La Jolla institution.

Amid budget cutbacks, staff reductions and a fund-raising effort slowed by the recession, the museum has nevertheless moved ahead with plans to unveil in April its expensive new image under a slightly altered moniker--Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.

Officials hope the change will end its confusion with the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park and spur greater interest in the expansion-minded museum, which is tentatively scheduled to open an annex in downtown’s America Plaza in October.

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“We’re really referring to it as a modification,” said museum spokeswoman Diane Maxwell. “It’s really not a name change. It’s a modified configuration.”

But with the anticipated opening of the downtown annex and plans to shut down the Prospect Street site for major renovations early next year, museum officials seem to believe the time is ripe to revamp the image of the 50-year-old institution that until a year and a half ago had gained international respect under the name the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art.

Museum officials declined to comment on the months-long effort to spice up its image, but sources close to the make-over estimate it will cost the museum upward of $30,000 to $40,000 for the as-yet unreleased logo, which will emphasize the letters MCA in a contemporary graphics style.

The museum has contracted with Pentagram--one of the world’s biggest design firms with offices in San Francisco, New York and London--to come up with what is known in the industry as an “identification plan.”

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“It’s not unusual,” said Kit Hinrichs, the Pentagram partner in charge of the museum’s image redo. “It’s done by corporations, institutions, governments--everyone who’s involved in trying to focus their attention on various audiences and presenting who they think they are to that audience.”

In the case of the La Jolla museum, Hinrichs said, “It needs to have its own identity that is distinctive from all others,” this despite the fact that the new name could easily be confused with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Since changing its name in 1990, that identity has been muddled. Opting to refer to San Diego rather than La Jolla in its name after a membership review found most members to be located outside of La Jolla, the museum found itself frequently confused with its counterpart in Balboa Park.

“People would call the San Diego Museum of Art thinking they were calling us,” Maxwell said. “We’d get their mail, and they’d get ours. We’ve even been misidentified in the press as the San Diego Museum of Art in La Jolla.”

The spokeswoman said she was unsure whether the confusion had contributed to the recent slide in attendance but added, “I do know that some people have gone to the wrong museum to see a certain show.”

Pentagram, which has done similar image recasting for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, England, and the Tate Gallery in London, typically slashes its fees when employed by public institutions, Hinrichs said.

“If this were U.S. Steel, we’d have completely different chargings,” Hinrichs said. “We are definitely making this a very economical thing for them to do. If this were a regular program, we will have probably spent $75,000 to $100,000 worth of time on the project. And the cost is not near that.”

Still, there are those who wonder about such an expense at a time when business is down at most museums nationwide and cutbacks are common.

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In December, the museum announced that a 10% drop in operating income will force it to eliminate at least temporarily its critically acclaimed film program in March. Gregory Kahn, the museum’s film curator since 1978, will be laid off at that time.

In addition, the museum has cut costs by reducing the number of yearly exhibits and altering its health insurance policies for employees. Budget constraints have also delayed the museum’s efforts to replace its education curator, who quit last year to take another job.

And Maxwell said the museum is still $3.6 million short of its $10.5 million fund-raising goal set in mid-1987 to expand the La Jolla site.

But Hinrichs said a new image and logo can translate into an economic boom for a museum--at least from a merchandising standpoint. His company is in the process of applying the new logo to posters, banners, sweat shirts and other retail items that will be sold locally and perhaps internationally.

The new image, Hinrichs predicted, can only help the museum succeed.

“It’s important for San Diego itself, if it wants to be considered a world-class city,” the acclaimed designer explained. “It’s taking that step forward to say, ‘We don’t only exhibit art that comes from San Diego. We exhibit the best art we can from around the world.’

“It’s important that they do things at the level that says, ‘We are part of the international arts community.’ This is part and parcel to that.”


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