Timken Museum director talks art of business (and business of art) at La Jolla Woman’s Club

Megan Pogue, Timken Museum of Art executive director
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

If Timken Museum of Art executive director Megan Pogue proves anything, it’s that the path to leadership is far from a straight line. She spoke about her path — and her role in ushering in the next phase of the Timken’s future — at the La Jolla Woman’s Club on Aug. 28, a guest of the club’s Women in Leadership series.

“My background is in the for-profit sector, which is an unusual fit for a not-for-profit museum,” she told those gathered. “Unlike all my colleagues, I don’t have a Ph.D. in art history, I didn’t study art history, I went to business school. What I’ve learned is that an art museum isn’t just about the art. Only 20 percent of my day is focused on the art. But the common thread between myself and my director colleagues (at other museums), is passion for the art.”

With three siblings in artistic endeavors and a mother with a master’s degree in theater arts from UCLA, Pogue said she grew up in a creative home in Manhattan Beach.

“My siblings and I spent every day after school and every weekend at a dance studio appearing in productions,” she said. “We also had what my family called ‘Culture Sundays,’ and you can only imagine how much we loved that! All our friends were at the beach and we were at the art museum, science museum, opera or symphony. But somehow it worked.”

Two siblings became professional dancers, and another was a professional actor. “I was the singer in the family,” Pogue said, adding that she toured the country in a group called Young Americans — even performing at the White House.

In college, she majored in music, but had to take other core classes to graduate. After a business class, she noted, “I thought it was really interesting, and the more I thought about it, I realized the struggling starving artist thing might not be for me. I thought ‘maybe I’ll be a little more practical.’ ”

After jobs at an investment bank, Pogue took a position as the vice president of marketing for a consumer products company in San Diego, where she stayed for eight years.

“Then something really unusual happened,” she said. “I was called into a very serious board meeting — where no one was smiling — and the chairman of the board said, ‘I have some good new and some bad news. The bad news is that we just let the president go and we are filing for Chapter 11 reorganization.’

“So I immediately wondered what the good news could be? They said ‘you are being promoted to president!’ ... talk about trial by fire!”

Pogue said she remained as president for two years, before she groomed the company to be in position where it could be sold.

Wanting to get back to her passion, she was connected to the San Diego Symphony.

“I loved the Symphony, but really had a problem with the word non-profit,” Pogue explained. “I didn’t understand what that meant. But the Symphony thought my business background could help it navigate being a successful non-profit. So I created new programs and events, reinvigorated the Summer Pops series, and had so much fun, it helped me realize this intersection of art and business was where I was supposed to be.”

Word of her efforts soon spread, and Pogue was approached by the leadership team at the Timken, with the hope she could do there what she did for the Symphony.

The only free museum in Balboa Park — and the only free fine-art museum in San Diego —- the Timken Collection is focused on European Old Masters, American paintings, Russian icons, and French tapestry. After delving into the history of the building, Pogue talked about her own history since arriving there in 2015:

“When I came, my background was actually very helpful because I could see the museum through a non-art historian’s eyes. The building was a big white box, and no one knew what it was. People thought it was an office. So the first thing we did was put signage up all around.”

Then she removed the turnstiles to open the frontage up; redesigned the rotunda to house more people at lectures; took down the pink wallpaper and replaced it with white wallpaper to highlight the paintings; and added information to each painting.

There are 87 objects in the Timken Collection — including its “crown jewel,” the only Rembrandt painting on public display in San Diego.

“That’s not a lot,” Pogue noted of its size. “We don’t have a basement, we don’t have storage. Everything we have is on the walls. We made one acquisition in the last 10 years.”

So when it comes to changing the exhibitions, Pogue said she relies on trades and loans with other larger art institutions.

“We’re a small, free museum. We always have to think about how we can do things for free or little cost,” she said. The next exhibit features drawings on loan: “Masterpieces of Italian Drawings from The British Museum,” on view Sept. 6 to Dec. 15.

Under Pogue’s leadership, the Timken also launched its artist-in-residence program (wherein an artist creates a modern interpretation of a piece in the museum); the “Jewels of the Season” showcase of elegantly decorated ornaments; children’s and veteran’s programs; a cross-border project (bringing children from Mexico to the museum); and some senior outreach, so docents may make visits to retirement facilities.

But one of her favorites is the Masters Series, which she describes as a “lecture with a twist.”

For the Fashion Masters program, a live model demonstration accompanied the lecture.

For the Wine Masters programs, the lecturer shares what wine an artist may have been drinking when he or she painted something, and then guests sample it.

Into the future

About a month ago, the Timken signed a 30-year lease renewal.

The original lease was just for the building itself, but with the renewal, the Timken acquired the Timken Plaza, the landscaping and front area.

“So that means we can make plans!” Pogue boasted. “We are currently in the feasibility phase to see if we can expand into the plaza and down into the basement … we would like to add a special exhibition space, administrative offices, conservation intake and outtake space for pieces coming and going, a multi-purpose room for events and children’s activity area.”

— The next Women in Leadership speaker has not been announced, but the La Jolla Woman’s Club will host its fundraising gala, “Casino Royale,” 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19 at 715 Silverado St. Tickets are $125 at (858) 454-2354.