Before it became the Balboa Park must-see that it is today, the Museum of Photographic Arts was a dream without a home. It was called the Center for Photographic Arts, and it lived everywhere and nowhere.
Formed in 1972, the Center for Photographic Arts was a “museum without walls,” bringing exhibits to a smattering of venues in San Diego in an effort to establish photography as a fine art, as opposed to a vacationer’s hobby. The dream developed into a beautiful reality in 1983, when the Center for Photographic Arts moved into Casa de Balboa and the Museum of Photographic Arts was born. And when those museum walls went up, the barriers came tumbling down.
“It was just unbelievably wonderful that you could go and look at actual photographs on the wall in a museum in your own city,” said photographer Suda House, a professor of photography at Grossmont College and an early MOPA volunteer. “The idea of turning the corner and being recognized as an art form was huge.”
Now one of just three independent photography museums in the United States, MOPA made good on its mission of making art accessible even before it officially opened its doors. In February 1983, two months before its public debut, the museum invited all budding shutterbugs to bring photos to the museum and pin them to the walls. The “Push-Pin Party” brought in more than 5,000 photos, including one from Roger Hedgecock, who was about nine months away from becoming San Diego’s mayor. In this museum in the park, life was art and everyone was an artist.
“The cross section of people that come through there and the international presence, that isn’t attainable anywhere else,” said former MOPA board member Valerie Stallings. “It is in the hub of the park and everyone goes there. I see people who have no intention of going in, but they stop and see that it looks interesting, and then they wander in. The exposure is unparalleled.”
Under director Arthur Ollman, the sleek, modern museum opened with an exhibit that captured the yin-yang balancing act that became MOPA’s calling card. On the one hand, there was the glossy celebrity portraits of Bern Schwartz. On the other, the gritty photojournalism of W. Eugene Smith. In the following months, visitors could feast their eyes on works by the pioneering Imogen Cunningham, the boundary-breaking Wanda Hammerbeck and Harry Bowers, and video-art mad scientist Nam June Paik.
A 2000 expansion gave MOPA room for a library, education classrooms and the state-of-the-art Joan and Irwin Jacobs Theater, which screens everything from surfing documentaries to the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.” Ollman left in 2005, and successor Deborah Klochko has kept the museum embedded in the community, bringing programs to seniors and students and throwing killer bashes with “POP Thursdays” parties.
When the Museum of Photographic Arts opened in 1983, admission was free on Tuesdays and $1 the rest of the week. In 2015, MOPA became the first museum in San Diego to offer a “Pay What You Wish” admissions policy, which allows guests to choose their own ticket fee. Once they get in, the payoff is always the same: Priceless.
Picture this: Five throwback moments from 1983
Feb. 26: Queen Elizabeth II comes to town.
March 30: Sisquoc, the first California condor born in captivity, is hatched at the San Diego Zoo.
April 11: The San Diego Chargers sign a 20-year lease to play their games in Jack Murphy Stadium (now Qualcomm Stadium).
May 23: The San Diego Sockers win the 1983 Major Indoor Soccer League championship.
Aug. 28: Simon & Garfunkel draw 35,000 fans to Jack Murphy Stadium.