Museum expands downtown location, preserving intimate feel of La Jolla site

A new, 16,000-square-foot addition to the downtown campus of Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, promises bigger and better exhibitions for area art lovers without taking anything away from the museum’s La Jolla location, except its monthly Family Day.

In contrast to the intimate, residential setting of the museum in La Jolla nestled against the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, the newly expanded downtown facility offers vast gallery space in an urban, industrial landscape. Occupying the Spanish Mission-Colonial Revival style building that was previously the Santa Fe Depot baggage storage facility, the renovation of 1100 Kettner Blvd. incorporated historic detail into the design to differentiate it from the classic, white-box gallery style at the existing downtown facility at 1001 Kettner Blvd.

The end result is a venue suited for large-scale installation art that utilizes all aspects of a space.

“One of the reasons we developed this newer project downtown was we wanted a greater variety of exhibition space,” said Charles Castle, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s deputy director. “It’s spaces like these that today’s installation artists really like working in.”

Because of inherent differences in the museum’s locations, the type of artwork currently exhibited in La Jolla will remain unchanged. Formerly the home of Ellen Browning Scripps, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, La Jolla, is unique for the intimacy and residential scale of its space, as well as its oceanfront sculpture garden. The 500-seat Sherwood Auditorium has also become a popular venue for film showings.

The museum’s monthly Family Day event has always been held in La Jolla, but that will change in the near future when it moves to the Copley Building downtown. The final Family Day in La Jolla will take place Jan. 7. Beginning Feb. 4, Family Day will be held at the downtown location.

Held the first Sunday of each month from 2 to 5 p.m., Family Day is an interactive experience for parents and children with local artists, tours, music, hands-on projects and other activities. By relocating to the dedicated education space in the Copley Building, the museum hopes to connect with a broader audience.

Just across the street and down the block from the museum’s current downtown address, the new space consists of two adjoined buildings. The Joan and Irwin Jacobs Building houses four gallery spaces, outdoor exhibition space and an artist-in-residence studio. The building features 32-foot ceilings, excellent natural lighting through high windows, spacious galleries and equipment for video art.

The David C. Copley Building is a modern three-story building with a 120-seat capacity meeting room, a dedicated education room and a terrace with a cityscape view. The building houses storage and administrative functions that would otherwise have detracted from exhibition space at the Jacobs Building.

“It’s wonderful, as an organization, to have this mix of things,” said the museum’s Denise Montgomery. “We’ll be able to do large-scale installations in an entirely new way and be able to keep pace with new directions in art (and) new media.”

In 1999, Centre City Development Corp. selected the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego to receive ownership of the Santa Fe Depot baggage building to redesign into a cultural center. In 2001, Catellus Corp. donated the land adjacent to the depot, which allowed the project to expand into the two-building campus.

The grand opening of the Jacobs and Copley Buildings will be held Jan. 21 from noon to 6 p.m, with free admission and a dedication ceremony at 2 p.m. A series of permanent, site-specific works were commissioned by the museum to commemorate this event.

A sculpture consisting of six, 52-by-58-by-64-inch steel blocks designed by Richard Serra was installed in the exterior concourse shared by the Santa Fe Depot. Jenny Holzer designed a light-emitting diode display of her signature truism texts that will scroll vertically on the Copley Building facade.

Roman de Salvo created a work from electrical conduits, boxes, connectors and lights to be located within the Copley Building stairwell. Other inaugural exhibitions will include work by artists Ernesto Neto, Richard Wright and Eija-Liisa Ahtila.

Castle said there was some concern that space in America Plaza, the museum’s current downtown location, was limited.

“We’re really so fortunate to have an opportunity to develop these two parcels of land and to build upon the work that we’ve been doing downtown for the last 14 years,” he said. “Now we have the critical mass of exhibition space downtown that will really make this a destination for art lovers.”

Visit or call (858)454-3541 for more information about museum events and exhibitions.