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Modern art’s train reaches the station

Times Staff Writer

San Diego

TRAINS come and go at the Santa Fe Depot, as they have for nearly a century. But much has changed at the landmark station. Built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition -- in a combination of Spanish Mission and Colonial Revival styles with a dash of Moorish flavor -- the downtown depot has become a venue for contemporary art as well as a hub for mass transportation.

In the covered walkway between the depot and the railroad tracks, commuters and tourists mingle with a massive sculptural installation by New York-based artist Richard Serra. It’s composed of six blocks of forged steel, each measuring 52 by 58 by 64 inches but rotated so they appear to vary in size as they proceed along the arched concourse.

Part of the historic building still functions as a train station, but the former baggage facility -- a cavernous, light-filled space with soaring ceilings -- has been converted to spacious galleries and a studio for an artist-in-residence. At the north end of the building is a new, three-story structure of corrugated steel and textured glass. It houses curatorial offices, art-handling and storage facilities, an art education classroom, a lecture hall that opens onto a terrace and a boardroom with a mesmerizing view of the harbor.

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Set to open Jan. 21, this is the latest addition to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, a 66-year-old institution based about 13 miles to the north in the affluent community of La Jolla. The museum -- which maintains a 3,000-piece postwar collection with particularly strong holdings of Minimal art -- ventured out of its suburban sanctuary in 1988 by opening a downtown storefront gallery. It established a more substantial branch in 1993, which continues to operate in an office complex across the street from the depot.

But the recently completed, $25-million project is a much bolder move. Designed by New York architect Richard Gluckman -- whose resume lists many art museums, galleries and studios -- the expansion adds 30,000 square feet of space to the downtown site and increases its exhibition space from about 6,000 square feet to 16,500 square feet. The building in La Jolla has an additional 16,000 square feet of galleries.

“The expansion has created a critical mass of exhibition and back-of-the-house space downtown,” says Hugh Davies, the museum’s director, who is spending a year in Rome with periodic trips home to oversee the project. Speaking by phone from Italy, he’s talking about public perceptions as well as measurable dimensions. The museum needs more room to present a lively mix of exhibitions and programs to its downtown audience, but it also needs a more compelling urban presence to help the city realize its potential as a major arts center, he says.

Derrick R. Cartwright, director of the San Diego Museum of Art, says the expansion “bodes well” for San Diego. “Many people have the impression that San Diego is culturally laid back in a way that maybe Los Angeles was perceived to be 40 years ago,” he says. “This is just the beginning of what I hope will be a lot more vitality. The downtown space provides a new platform for contemporary practices, and it’s beautifully executed by Richard Gluckman. I think the city is going to be challenged by it, which is a good thing.”

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In many ways, MCASD’s urban growth spurt is just one more example of the contemporary-art component of the ongoing museum building boom. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York are among a slew of institutions that have recently expanded or erected new buildings for contemporary works or are in the process of doing so.

Still, each project is different.

“We now have a variety of spaces to offer like no other institution I am aware of,” Davies says. Of the old depot, he says, “We have this beautiful, high-ceilinged industrial space with light coming in through clerestory windows and skylights.” Across the street are more conventional, white-box galleries, recently upgraded with climate control. “The downtown galleries complement the more residential scale and idyllic nature of La Jolla. We have a wonderful range of spaces for our collections and programs.”

It comes at a cost, of course.

“Running two sites is not only more complicated but more expensive,” Davies says. The museum’s operating budget rose from about $6 million to $7 million in 2006 and will climb to as much as $8 million in 2007.

Donors give big

MANY donors have contributed to the museum’s campaign, raising $27 million of the $30-million goal, including $5 million for the endowment. As might be expected, the identity of the heaviest hitters is not a secret. The renovated baggage building is named for Irwin Jacobs, founder of the technology company Qualcomm Inc., and his wife, Joan. The three-story Modernist structure bears the name of philanthropist and newspaper publisher David C. Copley.

The Jacobs Building will be inaugurated with works by an international slate of artists. Scottish painter Richard Wright has executed a gold leaf work on a large interior window and a sweeping, abstract mural of red triangular shapes high on a wall of the central gallery / lobby space.

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Brazilian sculptor Ernesto Neto will fashion polyp-shaped forms of Lycra, fill them with scents and spices and suspend them from the ceiling of the largest gallery in an installation expected to fill the air with enticing aromas. “The Hour of Prayer,” a video by Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila, will be screened in a gallery designed for new media. Another exhibition, “Modern American Masters: Selections From the Farris Collection,” will present a group of paintings promised to the museum.

Coming attractions downtown will include a retrospective of Morris Louis’ Color Field paintings, an exhibition of Robert Therrien’s oversize tables and chairs, and a broad survey of Robert Irwin’s perceptual explorations, landscape commissions and sculptural installations.

The Copley Building contains no gallery space but is outfitted with two specially commissioned permanent installations. Roman de Salvo of San Diego has made light fixtures of industrial materials for walls of the stairwell. Outside the building, Jenny Holzer, based in New York, has created a parade of her trademark truisms to be spelled out vertically in light-emitting diodes. The words will run through clear plastic tubes that she calls icicles.

All this has been a long time coming.

“We got the green light in 2000,” says Davies, recalling the process of acquiring the historic building. But the downtown expansion has been brewing for a couple of decades.

In 1983, when Davies was appointed director of what was then called the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, he took charge of a building designed by Irving Gill as the residence of Ellen Browning Scripps, founder of Scripps College in Claremont. Located on three acres of prime oceanfront property, the building had evolved into a museum with a large auditorium and relatively small galleries.

“The first priority when I arrived was to take better advantage of the site by building a sculpture garden, cleaning up the facade and adding more galleries,” he says. The sculpture garden materialized and architect Robert Venturi renovated the building in 1996, but the community prohibited the proposed addition of galleries.

“At that time it hadn’t occurred to me that expansion might not occur on that site,” Davies says, but he was painfully aware of another limitation. “Shortly after I arrived, I came to understand that many people in San Diego thought La Jolla was effete and elite, sort of hermetically sealed. A lot of people were downright reluctant to go there. As I solicited corporate support, I was told, ‘We don’t support La Jolla institutions; we support San Diego institutions.’ We had a challenge. If we were going to grow, we had to demonstrably embrace the larger community in which we reside. La Jolla is part of the community of San Diego, not a separate city.”

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About five years into Davies’ tenure, the museum opened a gallery downtown as an experiment, he says. The success of that led to the second space and a new name. The La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art became the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

“When we moved into the space across the street from the depot, I thought that we wouldn’t be doing much more downtown,” he says. “As it developed, we found that the outpost was too humble in size. People who went there were disappointed that the museum wasn’t bigger, and we were frustrated with not having enough gallery space and no office space there. We couldn’t have a meeting of more than five people, much less a lecture or program than required an auditorium.”

Plans developed slowly

DAVIES and his colleagues had vague designs on the old baggage building for many years. But its possibilities came into sharp focus in 1994, when his wife, curator Lynda Forsha, got permission to use the facility for “inSITE,” a periodic exhibition in San Diego and Tijuana that fills a variety of unorthodox and conventional spaces with contemporary art.

“That confirmed our suspicions that it was an ideal art space,” Davies says.

A few years later, the San Diego City and Catellus Development Corp. agreed to transform the baggage building into a cultural facility. Several organizations submitted proposals, and the museum emerged as the winner. The initial plan involved only the historic structure, but the museum later acquired the adjacent property, where the Copley building is located.

“This is not ideal as an efficient business model,” Davies says of museum’s split campus. “But it’s a very good solution to the problem we faced -- not being able to be San Diego’s museum of contemporary art, somewhat set apart and isolated in La Jolla. No matter how great a museum we could have in La Jolla, we were always, to some degree, letting the city of San Diego down by not being more conveniently and centrally located.

“We are now at a transportation nexus that serves us very well, including audiences from L.A. and Orange County who can now take the train as well as drive. Also, we are also just a few trolley stops away from Tijuana. It’s a huge potential future audience for us, future membership, future support,” he says. “To give up La Jolla would be a huge mistake. I think we have the best of both worlds. We have the idyllic oceanside retreat in La Jolla, and we are engaged with the heart of San Diego.”

suzanne.muchnic@latimes.com


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