10 Questions for Erika Torri: Athenaeum Executive Director

Erika Torri has been the spirited catalyst in the remarkable growth of the organization over the past 18 years. She led the Campaign to Reclaim, the most ambitious fundraising effort in the Athenaeum’s 109-year history. Since coming aboard in 1989, it had been Torri’s dream to reclaim all of the space in the Athenaeum’s three historic buildings for use by the library. Thanks to Torri’s dynamic efforts, the Campaign raised nearly $5 million, allowing for the creation of an endowment fund and making the goal of reclamation a reality. The Athenaeum opened its newly expanded and renovated spaces to the public in January 2007.

A native of Bremen, Germany, Torri received her master’s degree in library science at the Library School, Hamburg; interned at the Bibliotheque Nationale and at the Sorbonne, Paris; and served as Assistant Department Head at Harvard University’s Countway Library. As a practicing artist, widely known for her miniature weavings, she has exhibited internationally, and her works are in museum and private collections - although her Athenaeum schedule has left her no time for her own work of late.

Q: What brought you to La Jolla?

My husband and I are both from Europe. We met and lived in Boston for many years, where I was at Harvard and he was finishing his Ph.D. at MIT. Once he received his degree - and before we returned to Europe, as was planned - he was determined to explore the West Coast. He got a position with General Atomic and we came out in 1972 for a year or two - we thought. He fell in love with the ocean and the avocados and we have been here ever since.

Q: What makes La Jolla special to you?

The coastline, the light, the ocean, the many interesting people La Jolla attracts. We have some great organizations that provide programs and events that my husband and I enjoy, like the Museum of Contemporary Art and the La Jolla Music Society. UCSD is a jewel. I love the campus, the vegetation, the Stuart Collection, the buildings and all the inspirational programs they provide. I admire the architectural beauty of Salk Institute and The Neurosciences Institute.

Q: If you could snap your fingers and have it done, what might you add, subtract or improve in La Jolla?

Less traffic.

Q: Who or what inspires you?

The interesting people around me and their accomplishments. I am fortunate to work in an environment that attracts people with great and exceptional backgrounds and hearing their stories and learning from them has been a never-ending inspiration to me. I am quite often in awe about their knowledge, wisdom and love of live, and I have made it my goal to try follow in their footsteps.

Q: If you hosted a dinner party for eight, who (living or deceased) would you invite?

Joseph Beuys

Richard Wagner

Johann Sebastian Bach

Ellen Browning Scripps

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Paula Modersohn Becker

Kate Sessions

And my grandfather, who was killed in the First World War

Q: Tell us about what you are currently reading.

“Caspar David Friedrich, Aesthetik und Religion” by Werner Busch (because I like Caspar David Friedrich and it was written by my brother-in-law); “Ich bin dann mal weg, meine Reise auf dem Jacobsweg” (“I will be gone for a while, my trip along the Jacobs trail” – translation of the caption is mine) by Hape Kerkeling (because we are interested in doing the same) and “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini.

Q: What is your most prized possession?

I am a collector of many things, especially books and art. Collecting seems sometimes even more important than the actual thing.

During the days of the fires last October, we planned to pack our car and I realized that I either had to take everything or nothing. At the end my most prized possessions are my family, my friends and my health.

Q: What do you do for fun?

I take a four-mile walk every morning with my husband and attend musical performances and art exhibitions, travel for opera, contemporary art and hiking.

Q: Please describe your greatest accomplishment.

I consider the expansion and newly energized Athenaeum my greatest professional accomplishment. I started my journey with the Athenaeum in 1989, when we were still only occupying what is now called the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Music Room. We owned all the buildings around us, but everything was rented out. It was my dream to combine all three historic buildings and to make everything accessible for Athenaeum purposes. It took me almost 20 years. We had to wait for long term leases to end, I had to bring in an increased membership, we had to retrofit and I had to find the money to fund the remodel costs and to establish an endowment to offset the loss of rental income. Once I realized we were only one of 17 remaining membership libraries in America – an American historic treasure – my interest was piqued, and the expansion became my passion. With the help of talented staff, dedicated board members and generous friends we accomplished what we set out to do, and we opened the “reborn” Athenaeum to the public in January 2007. Today we not only oversee an arts and music library, with one of the most extensive collections in artists’ books in the region, we also present, annually, almost 70 concerts, more than 20 exhibitions, lectures in art, architecture and music, many social events and a busy schedule of art classes through our School of the Arts. We are the oldest cultural institution in town with an incorporation date of 1899, and it is my hope that the Athenaeum will exist and flourish for another 109 years and beyond.

Q: What is your motto or philosophy of life?

Contribute to society, leave your surroundings in better condition than before. Find something that interests you and do whatever you are able to do with love and passion.