Celebrating Art and Music at La Jolla’s Athenaeum: Erika Torri looks back on 30 years at the helm

Erika Torri, executive director of the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Today, the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library is a prominent cultural institution in La Jolla. Within its walls and spilling out onto its patio, a variety of concert styles fill the halls with sound; exhibitions rotate in and out; lectures delve into art, architecture, history and musicians; movies are screened; books are housed; and a one-of-a-kind collection of artist’s books are kept.

But that wasn’t always so, explained Erika Torri, the executive director who celebrated 30 years at the helm on Jan. 2.

When she arrived in 1989, Torri told La Jolla Light, the Athenaeum was but a music room, and only offered outdoor mini-concerts and contained books and music. The other two buildings on the property were occupied by the La Jolla Art Association, which moved to La Jolla Shores, and the San Diego Public Library, which moved to 7555 Draper Ave.

Its small size almost kept the Germany native from taking the job that would eventually find her reshaping and redefining the Athenaeum (named for Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom) forever.

As she recalled: “My husband and I were living in Boston — he went to MIT and I was at Harvard — and when he got his Ph.D., he wanted to come to California for one year. He just loved it; he loved the ocean and we had avocados in our backyard. I had a tougher time. I missed the culture of European cities.

“UC San Diego offered me a job, but I had two small children so whatever I took would have to be part time. They couldn’t offer me half time, but I told them what most people get done in a day I could do in half a day. Still, they couldn’t do that, which turned out to be a blessing.”

Instead, Torri dedicated those days to artistic “weavings,” which she learned to make as a little girl in confirmation classes at church. “I always wanted to be a weaver, and I loved creating little pieces ... I continued weaving when we came out here and it became a real thing for me. I made miniatures that were accepted at local galleries because everyone had a little wall space where they could hang my weavings.”

Soon, she was exhibiting at museums all over the world.

To get out of the house every once in a while, a friend suggested Torri work at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. She did, and quickly fell in love with being in an art space. It wasn’t long before she was recommended to head the Athenaeum Library. An offer she actually declined: “It was too small,” she said.

But as fate would have it, the Athenaeum hosted a reception for the UC San Diego Library the very night she turned down the job. It was there she learned about the Athenaeum plans to take over the adjacent space because the library was moving. She changed her mind and took the job Jan. 2, 1989. The expansion was completed by July 1990.

The Athenaeum’s gallery in 1990, after the first smaller expansion

“We had some mini-concerts, which we still do, but that was the extent of the programming,” Torri pointed out. Tasked with increasing membership, she knew adding more programs was the way to go.

She reached out to musician Daniel Atkinson to help her start a jazz program, which he still runs today.

“Then, I knew someone who wanted to do lectures on art and architecture, so we started that, and next we held our first gala,” she continued. “Those first few years, we started something new every year. We expanded into juried art shows and exhibitions, mostly with local jurors and artists.

“I also handled the fundraising. Anything we could fundraise for, we did. We had a cat that lived on the grounds and had a fundraiser in honor of the cat. Little by little, we got into the fundraising groove.”

In 1996, the Athenaeum opened a second facility in downtown San Diego to provide art classes and mini-concerts (which has since moved to 1955 Julian Ave., University Heights), and moved its jazz series to The Auditorium at The Scripps Research Institute and collaborated with San Diego New Music and its group NOISE to produce the SoundON Music festival.

“We must have been very energetic in 1996,” Torri joked.

As the years went on, exhibits sprung up in the Rotunda, the A-List group formed to encourage younger art lovers to become Athenaeum members, and a process to renovate the library to connect all three buildings began. The summer Flicks-on-the-Bricks film screenings was created, and the Murals of La Jolla program was inherited from the La Jolla Foundation.

However, Torri insists the Athenaeum’s “claim to fame,” is its art book collection, which is her personal passion. These books contain images of the complete collection of an artist’s work.

“The ones I’m most interested in belong to conceptual artists,” she said. “This is a new art form that started in the 1960s. These artists made little booklets and sold them for $2 or $3 to get their name out there. Because people bought them for a few dollars, people often threw them out. So many are not available. Now, they’ve become more and more expensive. I like complete collections, it is a bit of a hunt.”

Torri is currently hell-bent on acquiring the complete collection of an artist she won’t name for fear of a jinx. This artist has done 75 pieces, and she has 72 pieces catalogued. “If I don’t get the other three, we cannot do the book,” she said, with a mix of excitement and dread.

Looking back on her 30 years, Torri concluded: “It has been a wonderful journey. I feel I had the passion at the right time — and the time at the right time. I don’t want to outstay my welcome and there will be a time (when I leave), but I don’t have any plans to leave anytime soon.”

Torri said she considers her legacy to be the artist’s books. “They are one-of-a-kind and precious,” she said.

She’s also pretty satisfied at how the Athenaeum’s expansion and program turned out. “If something is successful, we continue it, so over time, people developed the slogan: ‘If it is at the Athenaeum, it’s good!’ and I’m really proud of that.”