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COMMENTARY : Putting Up a Grand Facade : San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art is opening a $9.25-million expansion and renovation that adds style and function. But the most telling message may lie behind that pretty new front.

March 10, 1996|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

The sloping garden in the rear, where some outdoor art can be shown, has also been nicely refurbished. For the first time, the museum has a real presence on the beach.

What it still doesn't have, though, is the main public amenity for looking at art. Venturi has made some minor adjustments to existing galleries, mostly by adding or relocating ocean-view windows. But having jettisoned the original aim of more than doubling the limited exhibition space, the entire scheme suffered.

Two factors seem to have conspired to delay and skew the expansion project: sluggish philanthropy, which has long plagued the arts in San Diego; and political inertia in a conservative enclave, which finally made Venturi's original master plan impossible to build. Hence the museum's big gamble--you get the queasy feeling that Venturi's "magnificent false front" was built in the earnest hope that maybe, someday, with luck and pluck, when the life of art is finally regarded as essential to civilized life in San Diego, the master plan might be revived.

Odd way to build an art museum. But as a public symbol, the new Museum of Contemporary Art says a lot about our cultural life in the 1990s.

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Museum of Contemporary Art, 700 Prospect St., La Jolla. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays. (619) 454-3541.

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