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La Jolla Heroines: Athenaeum’s Erika Torri weaves culture into the community

Erika Torri has led the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla for 32 years.
(Lidia Rossner)

This new series by the Light highlights local women who have worked for decades to further the evolution of La Jolla and areas beyond.

Much of La Jolla’s early advancement was fueled by prolific philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps. But many more women have followed in being important benefactors to La Jolla. This new series by the Light highlights local women who have worked for decades to further the evolution of La Jolla and areas beyond.

Erika Torri is a weaver. She once sat at her loom creating miniature weavings that were eventually displayed in galleries worldwide.

These days, her loom is the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla, where she has been the executive director for 32 years. Now her warp and woof are her efforts to lead the expansion not only of the Athenaeum’s physical presence but also its breadth of programming and other offerings.

Since taking the helm, Torri, a native of Germany and a North County resident, has woven new life into the 100-year-old building, coordinating remodels, directing the art exhibitions and encouraging the addition of music programs and lectures.

To bring in new members early on, she asked jazz producer Daniel Atkinson, then in charge of Athenaeum membership, what program he would start if he could. “He said, ‘I like jazz,’” Torri said. She asked him to launch such a program for the library.

“We went on from there to add other programs, one after the other,” she said.

As retirement draws nearer for Torri — she said she’s thinking seriously about it but doesn’t have a firm date set — she sat with the La Jolla Light in her Athenaeum office to answer questions about her impact and influence.

Q. What brought you to the Athenaeum?

A. “I was working at the Museum [of Contemporary Art San Diego] and Hugh Davies, the museum director, said, ‘They are looking for a librarian over at the Athenaeum.’ I had no idea what the Athenaeum was.”

Torri applied and went to look at the Athenaeum, which at the time stored its materials in one room. “It was claustrophobic. … I had to withdraw my application.”

After discovering that the Athenaeum owned the entire building, Torri took the job, overseeing the already-planned expansion into the adjacent rooms.

Q. What are you most proud of at the Athenaeum?

A. “I think, first of all, the remodel and finding the money” for the second renovation of the library in 2006.

“The other thing that I’m proud of is that we could keep the [original] atmosphere. We have a leg in the past and we have a leg in the future. We’re doing very contemporary art, but on the other hand … this is an older place.

“I also started the artist’s books.” While at the Athenaeum, Torri has amassed the world’s largest collection of complete artist’s books, an art form unto itself. The collection has always been “my dream. … another one of my things that I’m very proud of.”

Q. Did being a woman help or hurt you as you directed the Athenaeum?

A. “I think it helped. [Most] of the people here are women. ...

“But that does not mean [the next director] could not be a gentleman.”

Q. What’s your advice to the next generation of female leaders?

A. “You have to have passion; you have to know that whatever you are doing, you are not doing it because you want to have a job from 8 to 5.

“[When I retire], a new person comes in and he or she should have the opportunity to create something. … They have to put their own stamp on it, and they have to have passion for the job.

“Every day that I have come in is really exciting.”

Q. What do La Jollans need to be paying attention to?

A. “I think they should be very proud of the things that have happened to La Jolla when it comes to the arts.

“I also think they should be proud of La Jolla in general, because it is such a wonderful little village, and sometimes it’s not quite used that way or quite known to people. It really has a wonderful charm, and one should recognize that. Just like they should recognize the Athenaeum!”

Q. What do you want your legacy to be?

A. “I’m hoping that some of the things that I started will continue, like the artist’s books. … But on the other hand, I don’t want to put a heavy hand on anything, because I really think that people should have the freedom to have their way.” ◆