Mingei International Museum set to close Monday for yearlong renovation


Balboa Park’s Mingei International Museum, dedicated to the “art of the people,” is closing at the end of the Labor Day weekend to undergo what could amount to a yearlong makeover expected to cost between $38 million and $42 million.

Located in the House of Charm since its reconstruction in 1996 on El Prado, the 40-year-old museum will see some new features — such as an experimental theater and restaurant — as well traditional art exhibition and education spaces.

“It’s a pretty wonderful way to move into (year) 41,” executive director Rob Sidner said Friday.

“This physical renovation will transform the way the museum opens itself to the community, making its collections, exhibitions and educational programs more accessible for all,” he said.

Fundraising is well under way with a lead gift to be announced by the end of this year, officials said, with more than 50 percent of funds already raised, said Jessica Hanson York, the museum’s deputy director and chief advancement officer.

Officials hope the renovation — dubbed as a “transformation” — helps the museum gain new audiences, especially among millennials who, as project architect Jennifer Luce said, are always looking for a “selfie moment.”

She has come up with at least two of them that should prove attractive to all visitors.

The second floor will open onto the roof of the building’s arcades, where museum-goers can look out over the Plaza de Panama.

The belltower on the west side of the building will be outfitted with a new stairway and skylight where visitors can pose beneath a monumental glass sculpture by famed artist Dale Chihuly.

“Seventy percent of the people who visit a museum are there to have a social experience,” said Luce, who has won many awards for her architectural work. “So it’s almost critical that the museum offer that at the same time as the beauty of its collection.”

To that end, the ground floor of the museum will be open to the public without cost so they can eat at the restaurant, buy examples of folk art in the gift shop, research in the museum library and check out the permanent collection.

Museum officials believe it will become Balboa Park’s “living room,” where people will gather day and night.

The second floor will be reserved for changing galleries and accessible by admission, currently $10 for adults.

To improve access, a new entrance will be built off the Alcazar Garden, where motorists will arrive as they exit from the Centennial Bridge that is part of the Plaza de Panama project to clear cars and traffic from the park’s historic center.

That $80 million project is set to begin construction next year, pending final legal challenges and fundraising.

The museum will be opened up in another way, as some of the 40 windows in the building are uncovered and natural light can flow into the building’s interior public spaces.

“We want light from the Alcazar Garden to meet light from the (exterior) arcade,” Luce said. But care will be taken to make sure the additional light does not harm the fragile art objects on display.

A sculpture courtyard with seating for about 60 and a 125-seat theater will be located in a 5,000-square-foot, two-level addition to the building where the current loading dock is located at the southeast corner of the building.

Courtyard visitors will be able to take their food and beverages from the restaurant and sit outside, overlooking Palm Canyon to the south. Beneath it, the theater will replace the museum’s Warren Theater and host lectures, performances, screenings and other events.

In place of the existing auditorium, a new classroom will be created for expanded educational programs and hands-on art.

Sidner said the museum will incorporate what he called “digital-lite” efforts accessible by smart phone to engage tech-savvy millennials who want to explore the museum’s holdings further.

“We’re an art museum and the objects themselves are always front and center,” Sidner said, “and direct encounter with objects is not virtual. That’s what an art museum is all about. We will use digital technology that can enhance that direct encounter.”

The museum started out in a 6,000-square-foot donated space at Westfield UTC in 1978, the brainchild of San Diego State University art professor Martha Longenecker, who developed the school’s ceramics program beginning in 1955.

Its name derives from a made-up word in Japanese for “art of the people” and exhibitions have focused on handcrafted objects that reflect the work and ingenuity of world-renowned artists as well as unknown craftsmen around the world.

The collection of 27,000 items ranges from tiny beads to a 13-foot-high yurt tent from Kyrgyzstan.

Recent shows have included a salute to San Diego’s surfboard makers and innovative architects, street signs in Japan and painted clay figures by Sonabai Rajawar.

The House Charm, originally designed by Carleton Winslow in 1912, is also home to the San Diego Art Institute and rehearsal space for the Old Globe Theatre. It was the Indian Arts Building for the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition. Its current name refers to the souvenirs and other gifts sold there during the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition.

Sidner said the inaugural show when the museum opens in late 2019 or early 2020 will focus on the permanent collection. But he hopes to soon arrange for exhibitions focusing on folk art from Vietnam and Korea.

While the museum is closed, the museum’s coffee bar and shop will be open Oct. 5 at Liberty Station’s Dick Laub NTC Command Command Center, 2460 Historic Decator Road in Point Loma.

Monthly family programs will shift to area libraries, and offsite exhibitions will be mounted at various locations yet to be announced. Most recently, Mingei opened an exhibition two weeks ago on American quilts at the Centro Cultural Tijuana.

Mingei at a glance

Founded: 1978

Location: House of Charm, 1439 El Prado, Balboa Park

Annual attendance: Up to 110,000

Membership: 2,000

Membership dues: $50 per year

Admission: $10 (adult), but free through Monday as part of “Community Weekend.”

Budget: $4 million

Staff: 45

Showley is a freelance writer. Freelance writer Martina Schimitschek contributed to this story.