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Modern art's train reaches the station

The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego expands into the Santa Fe Depot.

January 07, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

San Diego

TRAINS come and go at the Santa Fe Depot, as they have for nearly a century. But much has changed at the landmark station. Built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition -- in a combination of Spanish Mission and Colonial Revival styles with a dash of Moorish flavor -- the downtown depot has become a venue for contemporary art as well as a hub for mass transportation.

In the covered walkway between the depot and the railroad tracks, commuters and tourists mingle with a massive sculptural installation by New York-based artist Richard Serra. It's composed of six blocks of forged steel, each measuring 52 by 58 by 64 inches but rotated so they appear to vary in size as they proceed along the arched concourse.

Part of the historic building still functions as a train station, but the former baggage facility -- a cavernous, light-filled space with soaring ceilings -- has been converted to spacious galleries and a studio for an artist-in-residence. At the north end of the building is a new, three-story structure of corrugated steel and textured glass. It houses curatorial offices, art-handling and storage facilities, an art education classroom, a lecture hall that opens onto a terrace and a boardroom with a mesmerizing view of the harbor.

Set to open Jan. 21, this is the latest addition to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, a 66-year-old institution based about 13 miles to the north in the affluent community of La Jolla. The museum -- which maintains a 3,000-piece postwar collection with particularly strong holdings of Minimal art -- ventured out of its suburban sanctuary in 1988 by opening a downtown storefront gallery. It established a more substantial branch in 1993, which continues to operate in an office complex across the street from the depot.

But the recently completed, $25-million project is a much bolder move. Designed by New York architect Richard Gluckman -- whose resume lists many art museums, galleries and studios -- the expansion adds 30,000 square feet of space to the downtown site and increases its exhibition space from about 6,000 square feet to 16,500 square feet. The building in La Jolla has an additional 16,000 square feet of galleries.

"The expansion has created a critical mass of exhibition and back-of-the-house space downtown," says Hugh Davies, the museum's director, who is spending a year in Rome with periodic trips home to oversee the project. Speaking by phone from Italy, he's talking about public perceptions as well as measurable dimensions. The museum needs more room to present a lively mix of exhibitions and programs to its downtown audience, but it also needs a more compelling urban presence to help the city realize its potential as a major arts center, he says.

Derrick R. Cartwright, director of the San Diego Museum of Art, says the expansion "bodes well" for San Diego. "Many people have the impression that San Diego is culturally laid back in a way that maybe Los Angeles was perceived to be 40 years ago," he says. "This is just the beginning of what I hope will be a lot more vitality. The downtown space provides a new platform for contemporary practices, and it's beautifully executed by Richard Gluckman. I think the city is going to be challenged by it, which is a good thing."

In many ways, MCASD's urban growth spurt is just one more example of the contemporary-art component of the ongoing museum building boom. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York are among a slew of institutions that have recently expanded or erected new buildings for contemporary works or are in the process of doing so.

Still, each project is different.

"We now have a variety of spaces to offer like no other institution I am aware of," Davies says. Of the old depot, he says, "We have this beautiful, high-ceilinged industrial space with light coming in through clerestory windows and skylights." Across the street are more conventional, white-box galleries, recently upgraded with climate control. "The downtown galleries complement the more residential scale and idyllic nature of La Jolla. We have a wonderful range of spaces for our collections and programs."

It comes at a cost, of course.

"Running two sites is not only more complicated but more expensive," Davies says. The museum's operating budget rose from about $6 million to $7 million in 2006 and will climb to as much as $8 million in 2007.

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