April 6, 2022
By Mimi Sells
PART 1: AN INTERVIEW WITH MCASD CEO KATHRYN KANJO
I have been waiting 50 years to visit San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art!
In 1971, we arrived in California after crossing the country in a rattletrap Ford van. We arrived in La Jolla and sat in a park opposite the original Contemporary Art Museum. Back then, however, museums were not in our budget! Many decades and geographic moves later, we returned to La Jolla in 2019 for good. While we were no longer starving students, but now, the museum was closed for its four-year renovation!
Now, the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla is readying for its grand re-opening on April 9. And I’m excited to savor every inch of its latest incarnation… on my long-delayed first visit!
I’m not the only one excited for the museum’s opening. Kathryn Kanjo has overseen the museum’s four-year renovation and she’s ready to show it off.
Kanjo is the David C. Copley Director and CEO of MCASD, leading the $105 million renovation and 104,000 square feet expansion.
Designed by world-renowned Selldorf Architects, the new MCASD quadruples the previous gallery space with a major addition that includes two levels of light-filled galleries. The museum will also showcase a public park and inviting ocean view terraces.
MCASD La Jolla’s campus will be additionally named in honor of generous donors and arts supporters Joan and Irwin Jacobs. The Jacobs’ gift of $30 million provided the initial foundation for the extensive fundraising efforts for this transformative renovation.
We spoke with Kathryn Kanjo about what she looks forward to as the museum prepares for its grand opening on April 9.
YOU’VE WORKED AT MCASD ON AND OFF SINCE 1992. WHAT EXCITES YOU MOST ABOUT THE MUSEUM RENOVATION?
After four years of planning and construction, it’s hard to believe we’re close to opening! It’s been a long period of not connecting in person with the community. And we are so ready do it! After the pandemic, with people having such a distanced experience with art, now we are going to be in immediate proximity with all these amazing artworks.
SPEAKING OF THE PANDEMIC AND ALL WE’VE BEEN THROUGH; THE REOPENING COULDN’T BE TIMELIER…OR MORE NECESSARY.
At this moment, with all the turbulence in our world, we are in greater need of the incredible experiences that art provides– solace, beauty, and space for reflection. It is exciting to give the community an authentic, in person encounter with art again.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT WORKING WITH CONTEMPORARY ART?
Contemporary art is made in our lifetime and reflects the world around us. I look at pieces from the 60s and 70s responding to civil unrest then… and it’s still happening. The art is still relevant. The issues remain with us.
HOW WILL THE MUSEUM’S EXPANSION AND ARCHITECTURE AFFECT THE EXPERIENCE OF VISITORS?
The difference of size will affect all of us. Now we can showcase both our collection as well as thematic exhibitions.
As an art historian, I think it matters to see art from different periods. The new space allows us to have historical works on view alongside special collections. It allows us to have a dialog among the arts across time.
AS YOU PREPARED TO RE-OPEN, WERE THERE ANY SURPRISES AS THE COLLECTION WAS UNPACKED?
We finally started re-installing works in mid-January. It’s been thrilling to see the artworks again and to see them in fresh surroundings. I have a long relationship with many of these pieces. It’s like seeing an old friend in new ways as it sits next to new pieces or in new lighting.
HOW WILL THE EXPANSION IMPACT MCASD’S REPUTATION IN THE ART WORLD?
For La Jolla and San Diego at large, this will be a source of great pride. MCASD is a tremendous civic asset, offering visitors and locals many different experiences. San Diego may feel like a beach town, but it also offers the cultural amenities of a big city
For the art world, I think people will want to see our works in the setting of all this light and space we’ve created that’s so specifically Californian. The opportunity to see, in this coastal setting, a collection that has been nearly 80 years in the making is unique.
And for the community, the new MCASD is so inviting with many works open to the public to enjoy on our grounds. We refurbished our iconic “Pleasure Point” (2006) sculpture of boats and surfboards by Nancy Rubins. We have exciting outdoor sculptures like the “Three Cairns” (2002) by Andy Goldsworthy and the “Hammering Man at 3,110,527” (1988 by Jonathan Borofsky.
LET’S TALK ABOUT THE ARCHITECT ANNABELLE SELLDORF AND HER VISION FOR MCASD.
I’m so gratified by what Selldorf Architects achieved. We asked for more gallery space, and we wanted to be respectful to the site. We didn’t want a big bully of a building.
In her design, Selldorf moved the main entrance so it’s more welcoming and aligned to the village. The façade fits with the street. And when you are inside, the flow of galleries is so open and welcoming. She uses natural light to guide the visitor thru and windows to help situate and orient you through the spaces.
Importantly, she delivered both functionality and an exquisite aesthetic that feels welcoming and appropriate for our art, much of which is large scale and bold. For example, we have a 10-foot-high Andy Warhol “Flowers” (1967) painting. In our old gallery configuration, only one large piece of art could fit. Now this painting is in a gallery with other Pop Art works. It’s contextualized. It’s fantastic.
We can now showcase artists of different times, themes, and styles in new ways to create new experiences. We moved a painting by Jack Whitten that has been in our collection for years next to a recently acquired sculpture by Maren Hassinger and a piece by Brice Marden. It’s thrilling to hang these pieces and create new connections.
I also love that the architecture has a range of heights. The galleries vary from intimate to open spaces as you move through the Museum.
OPENING DAY IS JUST A FEW DAYS AWAY. HOW DOES THAT FEEL FOR YOU AND THE TEAM?
It’s a privilege to be a part of building something for the community that will endure. Object by object, we are bringing art to the community that will resonate for decades to come.
It’s been an honor to conceive and help build this facility. A museum can connect us to the profound. It’s essential for our humanity. I can’t wait to welcome the community to our beautiful new museum.
Kathryn Kanjo has had two tenures at MCASD. From 1992 through 1995, she served as Assistant Curator, then Acting Department Head and Associate Curator. She returned in 2010 as Chief Curator before becoming Deputy Director of Arts and Programs and now CEO. Her professional resumé also includes directorship of the University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara.
For its inaugural exhibitions, the museum will present Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s, a major traveling survey of rare early works by the trailblazing feminist artist, who spent her final years in San Diego, co-presented with The Menil Collection in Houston.