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‘Art and audience’: A first look at Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s La Jolla makeover

As it dismantles the construction fencing and integrates once more into the landscape of La Jolla, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego is unveiling the details of its renaissance.

“We need this physical space to show our collection and to show off the city,” said Kathryn Kanjo, the David C. Copley director and chief executive of MCASD. “I just feel like it’s a gift to San Diego.”

For the record:

11:34 a.m. Dec. 17, 2021This article was updated to correct the name of Axline Court.

Poised to reopen to the public in early April, MCASD’s flagship location at 700 Prospect St. in La Jolla has undergone a $105 million renovation and expansion with the design and direction of Annabelle Selldorf of Selldorf Architects.

The museum, closed since 2017 for the construction, has doubled its size, quadrupled its gallery area, renovated 28,000 square feet of existing space and added outdoor spaces meant to connect the institution more cohesively to its community.

The exterior renovations, which include the addition of Italian travertine tiles on both the Prospect Street and Coast Boulevard sides of the building, are “exquisite,” Kanjo said.

In the designs, she said, Selldorf “celebrates and makes sense of our architectural history,” connecting the styles of original architect Irving Gill with those of architects who renovated the museum in later decades.

The original building was designed by Gill for Ellen Browning Scripps, who lived there after its completion in 1916 following the destruction by fire of her earlier home on the site in 1915.

After Scripps’ death, the building became The Art Center in 1941 and evolved into MCASD, undergoing several renovations. Two of the most significant were a series of expansions by architectural firm Mosher & Drew in 1950, 1960 and the late 1970s and a renovation by Venturi Scott Brown in 1996.

Selldorf’s contribution, Kanjo said, “orients us better to the community we serve,” centering the museum’s front door on Prospect facing Silverado Street.

Passing through the front door, above which awaits installation of the museum’s name, guests will enter an “approachable lobby” marked by open doorways that lead north to Axline Court, which was revamped to have more wall space and curated as “a people space,” Kanjo said.

Axline Court, with access to the garden and the Prebys Learning Center, where children’s programming is planned, “is definitely a gathering space,” said Chris Cloud, MCASD director of communications and marketing.

He said the intention of the expansion “is putting people at the heart of it.”

“We’re thinking about how the museum’s an anchor in The Village,” he said. “We know that it’s going to bring a lot of people from the region here, so we’re giving them spaces for them to hang out, gather and go check out The Village.”

Through the south side of the lobby is an expansive suite of gallery rooms formerly occupied by the museum’s auditorium.

Called the Strauss galleries — most MCASD La Jolla spaces are named for the donors who funded them — the rooms will serve as “our special exhibition hall,” Kanjo said, marked by a “tremendous amount of space,” white maple flooring, and natural or artificial lighting, depending on the room and purpose.

Some spaces, such as the Foster gallery, sport concrete floors and precast concrete ceilings, while others, like the Pfister gallery, are “jewel-shaped” and feature a ceiling of “structural skylights,” Kanjo said.

The galleries’ high ceilings — many at 16 feet — produce a “majestic-feeling space to come and contemplate the beauty of art,” Kanjo said. But they also serve a practical purpose, she added: “Contemporary artists will make big things and you need more space.”

To enable the ceilings’ height, heating and cooling ducts are buried under the floors, with vents along the floor seams, which Kanjo said is environmentally friendly as well as better for the art.

Between the galleries and within the west-facing galleries are large windows framing the ocean along Coast Boulevard, with terraces accessible from several museum spaces.

Cloud said Selldorf’s “vision is to let the light in, to really make sense of the ocean next door, vs. shutting it away.”

The outdoor terraces, which feature new landscaping and will have sculptures on display, and the garden, which has been replanted, are as necessary as the inside spaces, Kanjo said. “We’re about art and audience.”

She said Selldorf “has made certain that even when you’re in these very world-class galleries, you understand that you’re in La Jolla.”

At Jacobs Hall, which boasts oak ceilings and acoustical drywall along with large windows to the ocean, Kanjo envisions a space that will function as the former auditorium did, with a retractable projection screen and other technological advances to enhance spoken-word or video events.

“We’ll bring contemporary programming back to La Jolla,” Cloud said.

The rest of the existing spaces in MCASD underwent changes to ceilings and floors, along with opening walls for better access or closing up doorways for more wall space, Kanjo said.

Quadrupling the museum’s gallery space has “given us the opportunity to highlight our historical collection along with special exhibitions,” Kanjo said. “In the past, we would do one thing or the other. … Now we’ll be able to do long-term installations. It’s a thrill.”

“Ultimately we want to build long-term relationships with our visitors,” Cloud said. “In the past, people would come for one show. … Now the visitors will be able to build relationships with artworks,” bringing others — into the next generation — to share permanent pieces that have meaning to them.

“We’re going to give people a lot more opportunity to build relationships with our collection over time,” he said.

When MCASD reopens in the spring, it will showcase two inaugural exhibitions.

“Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s” will emphasize the early works of the late artist in a time when “she really finds her voice as a feminist artist and moves from abstract paintings to figurative sculpture,” Kanjo said.

De Saint Phalle spent her final years in La Jolla, creating the first piece for UC San Diego’s Stuart Collection, which is now having its 40th anniversary.

MCASD also will open “Selections from the Collection,” an exhibit containing 200 to 250 of its 5,000 collection pieces.

“What we want to do is highlight some of the old favorites and bring out pieces that haven’t had a chance,” Kanjo said. “We’ll tell different stories of art.”

Ahead of the reopening, MCASD will host a ticketed event on Saturday, Feb. 5, called “Cocktails & Crates,” which Cloud said is a “sneak peek for members of the public.” All the art is being moved into the museum in crates the first week of January.

Once the last of the art is unpacked and the final bits of scaffolding are hauled away, “having our community come inside is going to be like turning on a switch,” Kanjo said. “To see it activated, to see people having these encounters with art at this exquisite location … it’s dramatic. It’s nature and culture at its finest.” ◆