Balboa Park Art Museums in San Diego Make an Impression

balboa park


When visitors envision San Diego, California, museums may be the last things that come to mind. However, San Diego’s Balboa Park is a “landscape of art and culture.” The city’s much-loved park began as a 1400-acre “City Park” in 1868. The scrub-filled mesa overlooked present day downtown San Diego and in 1915 played host to the Panama-California Exposition. In 2015, Balboa Park will commemorate the Exposition’s centennial, and the park’s art museums are ready to celebrate.

The 1915 Exposition was organized to celebrate the Panama Canal opening and to bolster the city not only as a seaport, but also as a budding cultural center. Among its many exhibits, representing different industries was a major fine arts exhibition highlighting European old masters, American art, and artworks by California and local artists.

In 1922, planning of the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) began in order to build a permanent structure that would house a municipal art collection. The Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, as it was known, officially opened its doors in the winter of 1926 under the ownership of the City of San Diego. Trustees changed the name to The San Diego Museum of Art in 1978. Today, the art museum’s permanent collections feature artworks from around the world. Dating from 5,000 B.C. to present day, it is recognized for its Spanish old master paintings and its extensive collection of American, Asian, and European and Latin American art.

Located next to the SDMA, behind the Sculpture Court Café, is the May S. Marcy Sculpture Garden.  Under San Diego blue skies, the landscaped garden highlights 19th and 20th century contemporary and modern sculptures by artists such as Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and George Rickey.

With a desire to share the Putnam sister’s European art collection (of the famed Timken family) with San Diego, the Timken Museum of Art was established in 1965. Located on the Prado, the art museum houses a small but extraordinary collection of 15th to 19th century Russian icons, 18th and 19th century American art, and European old master paintings. Artists such as Flemish Baroque painter, Peter Paul Rubens, Dutch painter, Rembrandt and Flemish Renaissance painter, Pieter Brueghel among others are on display. The artworks are enriched by a small collection of decorative art objects and sculpture.

balboa park

In Balboa Park, the Museum of Photographic Art (MOPA) is a much newer museum, founded in 1983. Located in the Casa de Balboa building, it became one of the first U.S. museums solely created to assemble and present photographic art spanning the 19th century daguerreotypes and albumen prints to present day with documentary, photojournalism and digital imagery. Its permanent collection presents a prolific “photographic heritage,” not only as an expressive medium of fine art but also as historical documentation. MOPA possesses a collection of over 7,000 images from photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Margaret Bourke-White, Matthew Brady, Julia Margaret Cameron, among 850 additional photographers.

Established in 1978, Mingei International Museum was committed to the “art of the people” (Mingei). The museum collects, conserves and shows “arts of daily use” from all historical periods and cultures around the world. Located on the Plaza of Panama, works in the museum’s changing exhibits include unidentified artisans of ancient times, traditional cultures of both past and present and also historical and modern-day designers and folk art.

Named in tribute to Spanish-born Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, the city park grounds offer a landscape of art and culture year round.  In addition to the gardens and other galleries and museums, Balboa Park also accommodates the Spanish Village Art Center. Constructed for the Exposition, it houses 35 active art studios against a backdrop evocative of a Spanish plaza.

By Dawn Levesque

Balboa Park
Mingei International Museum
San Diego Museum of Art
Timken Museum of Art
Museum of Photographic Arts

2 Responses to "Balboa Park Art Museums in San Diego Make an Impression"

  1. Kevin Swanson   May 19, 2014 at 6:19 am

    The 1915 San Diego Exposition (Panama-California) was conceived as a catalyst for economic growth for the Region. City Park was selected as a central site, renamed Balboa Park for marketing purposes in 1911, with the 1915 San Francisco Exposition (Panama-International) getting the political nod to be the World’s Fair site in the United States.
    The Museum of Art’s Sculpture Garden and Annex sit on the site of a 1915 Exhibition Building that was torn down, as do the Miseum of Art and The Timken. The MoA building was built as a permanent structure in the late 1920’s (before Black Friday stock market crash), while The Annex and The Timken were built in clashing modern styles in the 60’s. The Mingei is housed in a 1980’s reproduction of the original building.
    San Diego 2015’s theme of “Celebrating a Century of Creativity (& Building Toward a Millennium of Sustainability)” and site specific “Balboa Park 2015: Exploring the Past – Creating the Future” has multiple benefits for the Region and for Balboa Park.
    2015 is the Centennial of The 1915 San Diego Exposition – NOT Balboa Park.
    The Region has the Opportunity to come together and show the World (as San Francisco did in 1915) that disasters such as fires and earthquakes make us stronger and help us develop solutions to challenges facing the World.

  2. Lisa   May 18, 2014 at 9:04 am

    Well done! Where can I get a full size of this picture? Beautiful!


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