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Museum of Contemporary Art’s CEO looks to the future and an expanded La Jolla flagship

Kathryn Kanjo is the David C. Copley director and chief executive of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.
Kathryn Kanjo, the David C. Copley director and chief executive of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, is overseeing a major renovation of the organization’s La Jolla campus.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

With the the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s La Jolla campus under major renovation, the museum’s top leader outlines her vision.

“Art is a prism,” says Kathryn Kanjo, the David C. Copley director and chief executive of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. “It reflects our region. It reflects our world. It reflects ourselves and others.”

Art also endures, and even as the museum’s flagship location at 700 Prospect St. in La Jolla remains closed during the COVID-19 crisis, work championed by Kanjo continues on an ambitious expansion project to quadruple its gallery space and enhance its peripheral aesthetics.

“While the museum’s closed, we’re fortunate that the construction can continue [with social distancing and sanitation measures in place] on the building,” said Kanjo, who added that the expansion project is more than 60 percent complete. She said she anticipates the finishing touches will be made by October 2021.

“We’re going from being this kind of jewel-box-size gallery space to being a true museum,” said Kanjo, who was appointed director in 2016. “The [added] space will allow us to truly highlight our collection as well as to do changing exhibitions.

“With that space, the building becomes kind of civically scaled, which is appropriate for an 80-year-old museum with an impressive world-class collection,” she added. “It’ll be oriented to The [La Jolla] Village and be a more welcoming facility.”

Kanjo described an eventual glassy pavilion entrance and a new art park “like a plaza open to the public” on Prospect Street. From Coast Boulevard below, “you’re going to see a regal building: travertine and glass and very precise board-form concrete walls along with the cobbled walls that are so identified with La Jolla.”

A rendering illustrates the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's renovation in La Jolla.
A rendering illustrates the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s renovation in La Jolla.
(Courtesy )

From 1979 on, the museum building in La Jolla has not grown, Kanjo said. A renovation during the 1990s added gathering space and “made the building more functional, but it didn’t add space.”

The Museum of Contemporary Art’s downtown satellite facility on Kettner Boulevard in America Plaza opened in 1993 and was expanded in 2007.

“When I arrived, the [La Jolla] museum was absolutely thinking that they were at a growth point,” Kanjo said. “The downtown space had a geographic strategy: a way to getting into the heart of San Diego. But it still wasn’t growth.”

Kanjo emphasized that the currently $105 million project is most importantly about the art itself.

“The idea of adding space is not just growth for growth’s sake,” she said. “It’s necessary to be able to show the museum’s greatest asset, which is its collection. We have trustees who’ve been with us for 40 years. We have promised gifts to us of major artworks that will be coming to us in the years ahead.”

The vision of MCASD for fall 2021 is a museum for exploring and making surprising discoveries.

“You want to be able to get lost in a museum, to have an experience of serendipity,” Kanjo said. “I’m excited that we’ll have the ability to do that, to tee up the visitor experience so that they can make their own way through. We want to lay out a path and tell a story, but we also want viewers to come in and ‘read’ at their own pace.”

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 then CEO. Her professional resumé also includes directorship of the University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara and executive director of the Artpace gallery in San Antonio.

Over time, she has come to recognize the historical storytelling and reflections inherent in art. That component will be prominent in the expanded MCASD La Jolla, she said.

“We will consistently have hundreds of works from our permanent collection on view,” Kanjo said. “That’s a historical collection [of more than 4,700 works], a collection of our generation. It’s 1950 forward. I think of 1950 to the present as 100 years because those artists were born in the 1920s. It’s our modern world. It’s also past and historical.

“This is an opportunity to do time travel, to see how works made 70 years ago resonate today, to see what endures for artists. The museum is a place for telling stories, and we will do it in a chronological way. But there are stories that cut across time. Art’s themes recur and persist.”

Tapping into history doesn’t mean the museum will stray from its mission to present provocative and challenging contemporary works, she said.

“As we plan for the grand opening of our new building, we are eager to promote diversity and inclusion in our permanent collection galleries,” Kanjo said. “This effort is not only about the collection reflecting the population but about telling accurate art histories.

“There’s always been an experimental spirit to our programming and an interest in working with living artists who are on the cutting edge. Contemporary art is broadly pushing the boundaries.”

That said, “new work can be surprising, but, frankly, old work can be surprising,” she added.

Kanjo likens the museum experience to a journey of learning and appreciation.

“The museum,” she said, “is the place where we unfurl the possibilities of the many stories of the arts. It becomes a kind of anthology. You the visitor can access it and go where you want.”

A rendering depicts the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's new La Jolla entrance.
A rendering depicts the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s new La Jolla entrance.
(Courtesy)