Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego marks 75 years with launch of bold expansion plan

An architectural rendering shows the proposed expansion for the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla.
(Selldorf Architects)

In a spacious Modernist villa designed by Irving Gill and set on a hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Art Center of La Jolla opened its doors in 1941. Over the decades, that single building, once owned by Ellen Browning Scripps, has slowly expanded into what is now the La Jolla branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

And, on the occasion of the museum’s 75th anniversary, it is set to grow yet again.

Last week, the museum formally launched expansion plans that have been in the works for several years. An extension and renovation, conceived by New York architect Annabelle Selldorf, the designer behind thoughtful upgrades at New York’s Neue Galerie and the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts, will add 30,000 square feet of gallery space — quadrupling the museum’s exhibition areas.

As part of last week’s launch, MCASD also formally kicked off a capital campaign of $75 million to fund construction and buttress the endowment. Already, the museum has raised $56.7 million — some of it through a $20-million challenge grant established by Joan and Irwin Jacobs, whose son, Paul Jacobs, the former chief executive of Qualcomm, is now president of the museum’s board.


“By every measure we are in a good position,” says Hugh Davies, who is overseeing the expansion and capital campaign for the museum. “And we still have naming opportunities in the new building.”

As part of the transition, Davies, who had served as the museum’s director for more than three decades, has handed the reins to Kathryn Kanjo, who had previously served as deputy director. Now Davies is fully focused on completing fundraising and breaking ground on the project.

The expansion, which will double the size of the museum to a total of 102,000 square feet — including galleries, administrative areas and other public spaces — will finally allow MCASD to show its collection in a permanent way. (Currently the museum has only 10,000 square feet of gallery space, which allows for the display of only one exhibition at a time.)

“It’s been this great frustration to have this great collection and not be able to show it,” Davies says. “We will be able to show all of the major movements of American and to some degree European and Latin American art throughout the 20th century.”


Retiring director of MCASD Hugh Davies, who will be focused on fundraising for the museum expansion.
Retiring director of MCASD Hugh Davies, who will be focused on fundraising for the museum expansion.
(Misael Virgen / San Diego Union-Tribune )

The museum, which has more than 4,700 objects in its holdings, is particularly renowned for its collection of minimalist and light and space works — which includes pieces by figures such as painter Agnes Martin and installationist Robert Irwin, known for ambient installations that toy with vision and perception.

MCASD also has significant holdings in works created by Mexican artists, in particular work from Tijuana. “We can tell the history of that city,” says Davies. “That’s been a priority all along.”

Architecturally, the expansion will finesse the jumble of buildings that have grown on the spot over time — from the original villa designed by Gill in 1915, to the additions created in later decades by architects Robert Venturi and Robert Mosher.


Selldorf, who is known for her perceptive approaches to existing architecture (last week she was also named the architect for a renovation at the historic Frick Collection in New York City), is also working on the whole complex’s relationship to its greatest asset: the Pacific.

“Annabelle is taking advantage of our site,” says Davies, “creating these terraces where you can look at the ocean and then you can go back in and look at art.”

Davies estimates that the construction will run about $55 million, with the extra $20 million going to the institution’s endowment (which currently stands at $40 million). “The increase in the endowment is essential for the museum — for additional maintenance and security and additional art handlers,” he says. “It’s a prudent and conservative plan.”

During construction, the La Jolla site will remain closed and exhibitions and other programming will take place in MCASD’s downtown San Diego branch on Kettner Boulevard. Davies estimates the La Jolla project will break ground in late 2017.


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