Balboa Park Art Museums in San Diego Make an Impression

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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

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