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Exhibit at La Jolla’s Athenaeum marks 40 years of UCSD’s Stuart Collection

Tim Hawkinson's "Bear" was installed in 2005 as part of the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego.
(Philipp Scholz Rittermann)

Every 10 years, the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla curates an exhibition showcasing various materials from the artists who have pieces in UC San Diego’s iconic Stuart Collection of public art.

The spirit of previous anniversary exhibits lives on in “Landmarks: 40 Years of the Stuart Collection,” which opens Saturday, Nov. 6, at the Athenaeum and runs through Friday, Dec. 31.

Athenaeum Executive Director Erika Torri and Stephanie Scanga, an installation consultant for the venue, plan to display models, drawings, letters, blueprints, photographs and video clips, as well as the Athenaeum’s extensive collection of books by and about the artists.

“The Stuart Collection is very personal to its audience and to the people who are using it or around it,” said Scanga, who has worked for the Athenaeum since the early 1990s. “It starts with their personal relationships with the pieces, and that is what we can try to pull out and convey from the materials we have.”

“It’s exciting because the Athenaeum is an intimate space, so we’ve chosen to focus on some of the more intimate aspects of the collection,” said Jane Zwerneman, assistant director of the Stuart Collection since 2001. “The collection itself is a public collection, so it’s outdoors and very big and not very intimate, so this will be a closer look.”

The collection, spread throughout the UCSD campus in La Jolla, now includes works from 20 different artists.

In the 40 years since the commission of the sculpture “Sun God” by Niki de Saint Phalle (a French-born La Jolla resident who died in 2002), the collection has become one of the most renowned assemblages of public art in the world.

The people behind it know this.

“There’s always at least one, if not a dozen people who go, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize the ‘Sun God’ is the same artist that did the Stravinsky Fountain in Paris,” Zwerneman said. “Every single time somebody has a light bulb moment ... this is why we do it.”

Humble beginnings

Mary Livingstone Beebe is the founding and only director of UC San Diego's Stuart Collection of art.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Mary Livingstone Beebe has served as director of the Stuart Collection since its inception in 1981. She says was running a contemporary art space in Portland, Ore., and wasn’t looking for a job. But one day she received a call from a colleague telling her that James Stuart DeSilva and his Stuart Foundation were looking for a full-time director to oversee a public art project on the UCSD campus.

“I immediately thought this could be real, but I had envisioned a lot of super-rich, super-ego people involved,” Beebe recalled. But that wasn’t the case at all, she added.

“When they offered me the job, I agonized for a bit and then thought I’d be a fool not to try this.”

The director of the university’s Stuart Collection will retire Dec. 31 after 40 years.

Beebe and Operations Manager Mathieu Gregoire, whom Beebe knew from Portland, immediately got to work. After the installation of “Sun God” in 1983, the two began commissioning artists to produce site-specific works that, as the mission statement read, “enrich the cultural, intellectual and scholarly life” of the UCSD campus. According to Gregoire, what he had to offer was not so much “knowledge or experience, but a sense of adventure.”

Though they certainly had the support of chancellors, deans and the Stuart Foundation, it was sometimes difficult to get the word out about the work they were doing, Beebe said.

“In the beginning, nobody quite knew what we were doing and we didn’t care,” she said, somewhat jokingly.

“We’re not a museum and we don’t do big openings every month or events. It’s just a question of keeping at it.”

Beneficial partnership

Torri, the Athenaeum’s executive director since 1989, has watched the Stuart Collection become an integral addition not only to UCSD but to La Jolla as well.

So when the 20th anniversary of the collection was approaching, Torri, along with Beebe, Gregoire and a few others, began to think it might be beneficial to team up to bring attention to both the collection and the Athenaeum.

“Of course the Stuart Collection is fabulous and the Athenaeum is the oldest cultural institution in La Jolla, but I felt the two of us were not well-known, so I suggested that we should have an outside exhibition at the Athenaeum,” Torri recalled. “That way we could bring in more people to both.”

That logic has remained roughly the same over the years, even as the Stuart Collection has grown. The university encourages the public to tour the campus and provides a map at stuartcollection.ucsd.edu.

A lasting legacy

After 40 years working together, both Beebe and Gregoire plan to retire at the end of the year. They, along with the collection’s staff and volunteers, will leave an artistic legacy that is internationally recognized.

“It has changed the campus, your experience of the campus,” Zwerneman said. “So for students, faculty and visitors, everybody, it’s more of a place of discovery.”

Torri declared the Stuart Collection “the most important collection of public art in San Diego.”

“It is known all over the world,” she said. “I absolutely adore what they’ve done, what we’ve all done.”

"Same Old Paradise" by Alexis Smith was unveiled this year as the 21st piece in the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego.
“Same Old Paradise” by Alexis Smith was unveiled earlier this year as the 21st piece in the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego.
(Philipp Scholz Rittermann)

Earlier this year, the collection unveiled its 21st piece, “Same Old Paradise,” a 22-by-62-foot desert mural originally painted by Alexis Smith in 1987. Smith is the only artist with two pieces in the collection (her “Snake Path,” which was inspired by “Same Old Paradise,” was installed in 1992).

The 22nd piece will be Ann Hamilton’s “concordance” walkway — a series of interactive swings and a 400-foot pathway leading into the campus — and Beebe has promised the artist that she will return from retirement for the official unveiling and “skip down the whole thing with her.”

“It’s really been an adventure and fun. I do believe that you have to enjoy what you do,” Beebe said.

She added that she’s confident whoever replaces her will continue to preserve and grow the Stuart Collection.

“That’s always been my feeling, that I wanted it to continue,” she said. “That it would become an ongoing exploration.”

Iconic pieces of the Stuart Collection

Niki de Saint Phalle’s “Sun God” (1983)

"Sun God" by Niki de Saint Phalle
(Philipp Scholz Rittermann)

One of Gregoire’s first tasks as operations manager was to find a spot on campus for Saint Phalle’s bird sculpture, the first piece commissioned by the collection. After seeing a woman with a parrot on her shoulder in a grassy area near the Mandeville Auditorium, he knew he’d found the spot.

Influenced by indigenous deities and perched atop a concrete arch, the 14-foot bird now has a campus festival named after it and is often dressed up by students.

“It was looked at in a very curious way at first, but today it’s the mascot for the students,” Zwerneman said.

Terry Allen’s “Trees” (1986) and John Baldessari’s “Read/Write/Think/Dream” (2001)

Terry Allen's "Trees"
(Philipp Scholz Rittermann)

Zwerneman recently encountered two students who, like many before them, wondered where the singing was coming from.

“They were looking up and wondering,” Zwerneman said, referring to Terry Allen’s “Trees” — lead-encased tree sculptures in the eucalyptus grove near the Geisel Library.

As a statement on the loss of the natural environment, Allen’s trees emit music, poetry and, with the third one, silence.

“Read/Write/Think/Dream” by John Baldessari
(Philipp Scholz Rittermann)

At the main entrance of the library, artist John Baldessari transformed a once-plain entry and foyer by melding colored glass panes and nearly translucent images of students in “Read/Write/Think/Dream.”

Tim Hawkinson’s “Bear” (2005)
Viewers seem to agree that Hawkinson’s 23-foot, 180-ton granite sculpture, fashioned to look like a teddy bear, is “amazing” and even “cute.” But the fact that it’s nestled in a courtyard among three engineering buildings is no coincidence.

Made from locally sourced granite stones, “Bear” took five years to complete (“They had to be out for years just to find the right boulders,” Torri said) and has become a favorite of visiting children. Even today, how the giant rocks stay in place is something of a mystery.

Do Ho Suh’s “Fallen Star” (2012)

"Fallen Star" by Do Ho Suh
(Philipp Scholz Rittermann)

Torri describes “Fallen Star” as the “most scary” and “incredible” installation of the ones she’s witnessed over the years. The piece, a statement on displacement and the longing for home, is a cottage that appears to have been dropped and hangs over the edge of Jacobs Hall.

“We made him [Suh] excruciatingly happy because he thought no one would ever approve his proposal,” Beebe recalled. “He didn’t think anyone would ever do the house. It was just too sensational.”

Bruce Nauman’s “Vices and Virtues” (1988) and Mark Bradford’s “What Hath God Wrought” (2018)

"Vices and Virtues" by Bruce Nauman
(Philipp Scholz Rittermann)

Those touring the Stuart Collection might want to stay until the evening to take in these two pieces. Nauman’s neon words — seven italic vices and seven vertical font virtues — flash intermittently and connect over one another around the Charles Lee Powell Structural Systems Laboratory building. The result is an illusory statement on the interconnectedness of purity and sinfulness.

Across campus near Revelle Plaza, Bradford’s 199-foot steel pole-like sculpture is topped with a bright light that flashes “What Hath God Wrought” in Morse code. What is really conveyed is an assertion on the changing ways in which humans communicate.

‘Landmarks: 40 Years of the Stuart Collection’

When: Saturday, Nov. 6, through Friday, Dec. 31. Opening reception is 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 19.

Where: Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, 1008 Wall St., La Jolla

Information: (858) 454-5872, ljathenaeum.org

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report