It’s a curator’s job to produce exhibitions that educate and entertain everyone from grade-schoolers to grad students to weekend wanderers. They decide what museums show and when, and what it says in the blocks of text floating next to everything.
These culturally crucial women and men choose the art a museum purchases and/or collects, affecting the space/time continuum by dictating what covers the walls and what will be stored for decades and centuries to come.
Just writing history, no big deal.
PacificSD challenged seven of the city’s prominent curators to choose only one work from their respective collections to create the ultimate exhibition, a museum insider’s guide that encapsulates the careers and passion of San Diego’s most art-felt professionals.
“The picture that I like to go back to and look at again and again is a picture that’s a real mystery,” says John Wilson, Ph.D., executive director and chief curator for the Timken Museum of Art in Balboa Park.
When the Timken bought this Italian painting in the early 1970s, museum officials thought they knew who the artist was, but art historians have since debunked the identification.
“It’s a wonderful thing, and I love it,” Wilson says. “It’s my favorite painting in the Timken.”
The Timken displays historically relevant European and American art from the 14th to 19th Centuries. Visitors are invited to take a look free of charge, as the museum lacks an entry fee, not to mention the writing on the walls.
“The one thing that we don’t have are labels on the wall to distract you from the pure pleasure of looking at the works of art,” says Wilson. “We want that connection between the art and your eyes to be the primary focus of your visit.”
Wilson’s love for art began with classics like his favored anonymous painting shown here.
“There’s really no reason that a kid from Fort Worth would grow up loving old master paintings, but it has worked for me,” he says.
Timken Museum of Art
1500 El Prado, Balboa Park
(619) 239-5548, timkenmuseum.org
“I think [Nancy Rubins] is changing what sculpture can do,” says Kathryn Kanjo, chief curator for Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD). “She’s an innovator.”
Installed on the outside of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla, Rubins’ “Pleasure Point” is similar to other installations the artist has created using only wire and found objects - in this case, boats. Much of her work seems to defy gravity, but it actually relies on the downward force to keep the balancing act afloat.
“You can see her contribution and how she has rocked the world of sculpture,” Kanjo says. “That’s amazing. She is a fantastic living artist and is already art history.”
At MCASD, Kanjo works with a collection of international art from 1950 to present, organizing boundary-pushing shows like “Lifelike” (on display at MCASD La Jolla through May), which celebrates everyday objects through works including an eight-and-a-half-foot-tall milk carton.
“We arouse you out of your day-to-day stupor by giving you some artists’ inspiration that hopefully you can open yourself up to and make your own,” Kanjo says.
Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego700 Prospect St., La Jolla
1100 & 1001 Kettner Blvd., Downtown
“I love this work,” says Lauren Lockhart, curator at The New Children’s Museum (NCM). “It embodies the best of what we are trying to realize in our exhibitions here at NCM - compelling, participatory artwork that is engaging for all ages and that invites diverse interpretations.”
Chris Sollars is a San Francisco-based mixed media artist whose work comments on urban spaces and how the population interacts with them. “Playfill” allows viewers to climb into a dumpster and watch a video of trash falling on them, giving them the perspective of garbage itself.
NCM’s interactive and playful works like “Playfill” are releasing the inner-child from viewers of any age, exposing them to the magic of creativity and imagination.
“If a child feels that they are an important part of an artwork, that their presence is what activates it, and if they’re given the opportunity to make their own artwork and feel empowered as an artist in their own right, hopefully they will seek out other art experiences,” says Lockhart.
The New Children’s Museum
200 West Island Ave., Downtown
“It’s a wonderfully functional and beautiful piece of furniture, yet it also speaks to Gronborg’s quirky approach to furniture making,” says Christine Knoke, director of exhibitions and chief curator for Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park.
Erik Gronborg is a craftsman who lives and works in San Diego, making wooden furniture like this desk.
“It’s an iconic work that speaks to both fine European craftsmanship and the experimentation in woodworking that occurred in the United States in the 1970s,” Knoke says.
The Mingei, which has also displayed Gronborg’s experimental ceramic pieces representing the “sloppy craft” movement, will show this particular desk at its “PLEASE BE SEATED” exhibition, opening in October.
Gronborg’s desk has an everyday purpose (or at least looks like it could), which, like much of the Mingei’s collection of nearly 22,000 pieces of craft and folk art from 141 countries, allows people to interact with the fruits of artists’ creative labor versus simply viewing works from afar.
“At the Mingei, art is for everyone, and it can come from anyone,” says Knoke. “Ultimately, we try to showcase a broad range of human creativity and ignite a creative spark [in those] who visit the museum.”
Mingei International Museum
1439 El Prado, Balboa Park
“It is a hand-decorated album page and shows some of the earliest manipulation of a photograph,” says Deborah Klochko, executive director of the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) in Balboa Park. “It is a true precursor to the creative expression we see today.”
This 19th Century work is one of the museum’s oldest.
“It is so important to the history of photography and media,” says Klochko, who has two master’s degrees - one in photography, the other in museum education - which suit her well for her curatorial position at MOPA.
“We want to help people understand what is to be a photographer, the creative side and the power of the image to make a significant social impact,” she says. “People can take pictures any time with their phones, but not everyone is a photographer.”
The MOPA, which opened in the early 1970s, is one of only three stand-alone photography museums in the nation exhibiting such rare works as the one shown here.
Museum of Photographic Arts
1649 El Prado, Balboa Park
"[This] one piece makes me smile every time I visit our collections room,” says Danielle Susalla Deery, curator at the Oceanside Museum of Art (OMA).
Italian-born American artist Italo Scanga used found and manmade materials to create mixed-media sculptures. “Untitled (Blue dog with glass flame)” which was inspired by a Renaissance painting of St. Dominic and a dog bearing a torch, is a prime example of how Scanga’s art often alluded to an Italian upbringing wrought with religiosity and history.
“I infer the meaning to express the artist’s constant interest in keeping the flame of his imagination and spirituality alive and in harmony with his life,” Deery says.
Scanga, who died in his Pacific Beach studio in 2006, is one of the many San Diego artists OMA has exhibited. The museum also hosts works from around the world, but it’s this local focus that has given Deery the unique curatorial opportunity to spend time with many artists prior to their exhibitions.
“I love visiting artist studios,” Deery says, “learning about their process and outlook on art and life, what motivates and inspires them, and being able to translate that into a museum setting accessible to the public.”
Oceanside Museum of Art
704 Pier View Way, Oceanside
Curator: Roxana Velásquez
Title: Executive director
Museum: San Diego Museum of Art
Selected Work: “Marqués of Sofraga”
Artist: Goya y Lucientes
Year completed: circa 1795
“It is a composition in which Goya accentuates his acute psychological approach to the individual over the portrayal of the paraphernalia and the settings surrounding the Marqués,” says San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) executive director, Roxana Velásquez, of the sole piece of art she chose to highlight from San Diego’s oldest and largest museum.
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes was an 18th and 19th Century Spanish painter and printmaker, famous for his ability to blend commentary into otherwise straightforward and traditional works. Rather than rendering his subjects as realistically as possible, he relied on a more expressive use of color and form that would ultimately inspire the likes of Manet and Picasso.
“Goya’s sitters [his portrait subjects] transmit a more intimate feeling,” says Velásquez. “They reveal more personal information about the subjects of the paintings.”
Velásquez fell in love with Goya’s work when she 14, at a Goya exhibition in Mexico City. “At that very moment, I was convinced of taking a profession in the art world,” she says.
The SDMA, which opened its doors in Balboa Park in 1926, boasts a collection that includes Italian and Spanish masters, 19th and 20th Century American painters and a newly renovated Art of East Asia gallery. The museum also hosts major exhibitions from around the world.
“We are bringing the world’s best art to San Diegans,” Velásquez says.
San Diego Museum of Art
1450 El Prado, Balboa Park
Calling all aspiring young artists:
MCASD is hosting a 25-and-under art contest. Submit your original artwork, inspired by MCASD’s Greedy Organ mascot, for the chance to have it displayed at the museum in May and to win $500 in art supplies. Submission deadline is April 22. Find details at feedyourgreedyorgan.com.