‘I would like to be remembered for what I created’: Athenaeum director Erika Torri announces her retirement
After 33 years of expanding the cultural footprint of the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, Executive Director Erika Torri has announced she will retire June 30, leaving the La Jolla institution in the hands of someone she hopes will mark the community as she has.
“The time has come,” Torri said. “I have been here for quite a long time … and I’m very satisfied with what I have accomplished.
“I would like to be remembered for what I created.”
Torri joined the Athenaeum in 1989 after originally withdrawing her application upon seeing the cluttered and “claustrophobic” music room.
She accepted the job when she was told the Athenaeum, then confined to a small space, owned the building at 1008 Wall St. and Torri would be able to spread out as leases ended and the Athenaeum reclaimed the rooms.
Torri endeavored to expand not only the Athenaeum’s physical presence but its offerings as well while overseeing fundraising and renovations.
“I started all the programming,” she said.
She asked jazz producer Daniel Atkinson to launch a jazz series, and under Torri’s direction other programs began, including the Chamber Concert Series, the annual gala, the juried art show, exhibits and lectures.
Torri also directed the Athenaeum’s expansion further into San Diego with a School of the Arts Studio downtown, followed two years later by the Athenaeum Arts Center in Logan Heights.
She’s also a founding member of the Membership Libraries Group; the Athenaeum (established in 1899 as the Library Association of La Jolla) is one of only 17 libraries with dues-paying members remaining nationwide.
One of the accomplishments Torri points to with pride is amassing the world’s largest collection of complete artist books, created as an art form unto itself. The Athenaeum is poised to complete its ninth collection of artist books this year, the result of Torri scouring bookshops around the globe for years.
Max Elliott, a La Jolla resident who has served on the Athenaeum’s board of trustees for several terms since 2005, said “anyone who knows the modern Athenaeum will equate that with Erika Torri. She has given this place an identity that it really didn’t have before she got here.”
Elliott met Torri through his now-late wife, Melissa, who joined the board in 1986 before Torri’s hiring. “I don’t know what she had in mind for how she saw the future unfolding,” Elliott said of Torri. “But Erika is an artist.”
“There’s something going on at the Athenaeum almost every day of the week,” he said, including art classes, concerts, lectures and exhibits. “We probably are the most culturally diverse organization in the city.”
The fact that five internationally celebrated jazz guitarists from four countries are embarked on U.S. tours that include concerts at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla between Feb. 1 and March 2 may qualify as musical manna for six-string fans.
Elliott praised Torri for increasing the Athenaeum’s membership, nurturing a “larger, more involved board of trustees and [creating] a sort of family of supporters, people who really love this place. You’ll see the same faces here over and over again.”
Elliott said Torri is “a very unique person. None of us in the beginning would ever have guessed how successful she would be. … None of us could foresee how dedicated ... how hard-working she would be.”
“This for her is not work … this is a passion. It’s her life,” he said.
Elliott is a member of the Athenaeum’s succession committee, which has begun a search for Torri’s replacement. He said he hopes the next executive director “will come with the same passion, the same dedication, the same vision.”
Torri, too, said her successor needs to “bring some passion and has to have an idea for what he or she wants to do that is special.”
She added that she hopes her replacement maintains the “same atmosphere” at the Athenaeum, “with one foot in the contemporary and [being] old-fashioned in many ways, too.”
“People feel very welcome,” Torri said. “We are open to anybody; you don’t have to be a member to come.”
Elliott said Torri’s successor “will obviously have a challenge to establish themselves and gain the same sort of support and respect that Erika has, but the board is committed to providing that support.”
Torri has said that if a suitable replacement isn’t hired by June 30, she will stay “as long as it takes to get somebody. But I’m not staying forever.”
Once she is fully retired, she plans to spend a lot of time with her children and grandchildren, most of whom are in La Jolla, and organize her personal collection of artist books.
Though Torri said she’s ready to leave the job, it will be “tough,” as evidenced by her “very emotional” response to the Athenaeum and San Diego New Music’s 14th annual SoundOn Festival last weekend, when she realized she wouldn’t be directing the festival next year.
“It’s the first of my ‘lasts,’” she said. “It’s difficult.” ◆
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