Museum of Contemporary Art committee considers expansion of La Jolla facility


By Pat Sherman

The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) has taken an important, albeit preliminary, step to assure that the public has a greater opportunity to view the world-class artworks in its permanent collection.

Museum trustees have formed a committee to select an architect who would be tasked with increasing the museum’s La Jolla exhibit space from about 10,000 square feet to as much as 30,000 square feet.

Much of the 52,000-square-foot campus is taken up by Sherwood Auditorium, plus meeting and education space, storage and circulation facilities, a boardroom, bookstore and café.

“We have lots of very useful auxiliary spaces, but the general formula for an art museum is that 50 percent of your space is public — primarily gallery space — and 50 percent is back of house,” MCASD Director Hugh Davies said. MCASD is currently using less than 20 percent of its facility as exhibit space, he said.

Of the approximately 47,000 pieces in MCASD’s permanent collection, Davies said the museum is only able to display 50 to 60 works at a given time.

“If we were able to add another 30,000 square feet we could raise that number from 50 to 250 — and that would be a dramatically different institution,” Davies said. “We’ve been building an art collection since we were founded in 1941 and have never really had adequate exhibition space to present a collection … so it sort of languishes in storage most of the time.”

During the past several years, the museum has been the recipient of several extraordinary gifts, Davies said, including 40 works by Christo left to the museum by the late


publisher and MCASD board trustee, David Copley.

“Thanks to David’s generosity, we now have the largest collection of Christo’s work outside of the National Gallery in Washington,” Davies said. “That’s a collection that we really should be sharing with people on a regular, permanent basis.

“We also have collections promised to us by other trustees. Knowing that these collections are in our future, we’re anticipating needing more space to show them, because people don’t like to leave collections to museums that don’t use them.”

The expansion committee held its first meeting in June, at which time it approved a list of eight U.S. architectural firms to send a request for qualifications — all of which Davies said where interested in “throwing their hat in the ring.”

The committee and a project consultant will meet next during the second week of September, at which time they will review the submissions and chose between two and four architects to bring to La Jolla for an interview.

Though Davies stressed that the project involves multiple stages of trustee review — which could result in a decision not to expand based on economic conditions or other factors — Davies said the museum would likely consider reconfiguring the 500-seat Sherwood Auditorium to become exhibit space. In addition, MCASD owns a residential, rental property to the south of the auditorium that could be demolished to accommodate expansion.

“One of the things we’ll ask the selected architect, if we get that far, is to recommend to us how we best achieve our goals,” Davies said. “It’s not inconceivable that they would come up with an alternative that involved the small house that’s on the north (which the museum once owned and now has right of first refusal to purchase). Or, they might say, ‘Why don’t you reconfigure your façade?’ or ‘Why don’t you move your entrance to the other side of the building?’ None of us have any idea what they’ll come up with.”

Davies said the more than five-decade-old Sherwood Auditorium is now “fairly decrepit,” the seats are out-of-date and the sound system and acoustics leave something to be desired. It also doesn’t have a large enough backstage area to be used for theatrical performances, he said.

Davies said MCASD only fills the auditorium to capacity once per year, providing it has a big-name speaker such as Christo or architect Frank Gehry.

“Otherwise, the lion’s share of the events bring in 200 people maximum,” Davies said. “For many years the trustees have weighed the possibility of repurposing it as exhibition galleries. Given its height it could be divided into two floors and as many as 13,000 or 14,000 square feet.”

Down the road, the museum would likely create a smaller auditorium or lecture hall elsewhere on the campus at half the size, Davies said.

Reactions to that plan from those who rent Sherwood on a regular basis were mixed.

Warwick’s Bookstore, which held a sold-out book signing and discussion with “Kite Runner” author Khaled Hosseini in June, said the venue is a good fit for events where a publisher has requested an off-site venue.

“Other area venues are either much larger or much smaller ... which can create a bit of a ‘Goldilocks’ situation of too big or too small — especially for events where estimated attendance is 400-500,” said Warwick’s book buyer Adrian Newell.

La Jolla resident Craig Decker (aka “Spike” of Spike and Mike’s Festival of Animation) has held that festival at Sherwood Auditorium since 1985, and added other events there since. He said he hopes Sherwood will not be repurposed.

“It is such a great venue and location that we now do at least two shows a year there, with our next (“Sick & Twisted”) festival starting on Aug. 24.”

Decker said a venue half the size of Sherwood would not work.

“We do venues in other cities that are sometimes four times the size of the current Sherwood Auditorium,” Decker said.

Christopher Beach, president and artistic director of the La Jolla Music Society (LJMS), said the society has had a good working relationship with MCASD during the 45 years it has used Sherwood Auditorium, and has known about the expansion plans for some time.

The society holds portions of its SummerFest concerts, Frieman Family Piano Series, Ravel chamber music series and other events there.

“The museum has a mission to fulfill and we certainly understand that,” Beach said. “It was an unexpected change but it has energized my board and the staff in an exciting way. We now get to think of where we might go … perhaps a performance venue or concert hall that would be even better, with superior acoustics.

“The museum has their own time table and we (the LJMS board of directors) have our own,” Beach added. “If we find an alternative site before the museum begins its renovations, we’ll take that step then.”

At the end of the day, Davies said proceeds from renting Sherwood to the LJMS and other groups doesn’t quite cover its operating costs and taxes.

“It’s a large piece of real estate in the middle of a very valuable site that isn’t being used to advance our primary mission, which is the display, interpretation and preservation of contemporary modern art,” Davies said, noting that the expansion would put MCASD on a par with the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art or Seattle Art Museum.

“We would go from being a small-to-medium regional museum, to being a substantial, national institution,” he said.