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Since taking the reins at the San Diego Art Institute (SDAI) in March 2014, Ginger Shulick Porcella has thoroughly revamped the nonprofit art space, increasing its visibility, diversifying its programming, and drawing praise from everyone with a stake in the local art scene — well, almost everyone. Nine longtime SDAI members are accusing the new executive director and her board of acting unilaterally, without consulting the institute’s 238 members, as well as making programming decisions that violate the gallery’s mission and put its lease — on about 10,000 square feet in the House of Charm in San Diego’s popular Balboa Park — in jeopardy. These accusations, irrespective of their validity (or lack thereof), speak volumes about an institution that was long run like a members-only club in a city badly in need of a more inclusive and forward-thinking municipal art gallery.
“I’ve been in town for over 30 years, and during that period the Art Institute was a space with a terrific location in the heart of Balboa Park and a nice facility in terms of the height of the ceilings and quality of light and that sort of thing,” Hugh Davies, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) told Hyperallergic over the phone. “But it was always depressingly dowdy and badly installed and, most of all, the quality of the art they showed was less than mediocre. In all the years I’ve gone there — and I used to go at least once if not twice a year — I never discovered anybody or anything of consequence.”
Indeed, up until last year — and especially before 2008, when a change in SDAI’s bylaws shifted decision-making power from the members to the board of directors — the institute’s exhibition program consisted primarily of juried group shows filled mostly with art by members. The organization of solo exhibitions was not up to a curator, but rather determined by a point system: members who received enough prizes in the juried shows were eventually rewarded with solo shows. “It’s almost like you get miles for flying on American and then you get a first-class seat,” said Davies. “It’s the most bizarre and primitive way to run an arts organization.” The point system, like much of the SDAI operations pre-2008, seems to have been a vestige of the institute’s early years — it was founded in 1941 as the San Diego Business Men’s Art Club to showcase members’ landscape paintings.
“It was a member organization before, and members who essentially paid to show their work here are upset that they can’t pay to show their work here anymore,” Porcella told Hyperallergic. “However, there’s some really great art in San Diego, and the artists who didn’t have a venue to show their work before are thrilled.”
In addition to overseeing a complete redesign of the institute’s website and doing away with its alternate name — “Museum of the Living Artist” — Porcella has introduced residency programs for artists and curators, stopped selling members’ works in the gift shop, and brought greater diversity and rigor to the exhibitions program. Gone are the consecutive juried exhibitions featuring (and selling) members’ art. Current on view are a thematic group show of text-based art and a solo show by member artist Judith Parenio. The last major group show, What Remains: Debris and Detritus in Fine Art, featured works made from found and discarded materials. Special events in the coming months include the first annual “Miss Balboa Park Drag Beauty Pageant” and an “Artist vs. Curator” softball game and fundraiser.
Local artists and curators aren’t the only ones going to bat for the revitalized institute. Earlier this month the California Arts Council (CAC) awarded SDAI more than $63,000 in grants — including $53,900, the largest sum received by any San Diego County cultural organization in this round of grants, to help fund a multisite project by local artist Kate Clark. Despite such signs of encouragement and improvement, the group of displeased members insists that Porcella’s actions are in violation of the institute’s mission and have unfairly disempowered its membership. Chief among them is Joe Nalven, the former chair of the institute’s board of directors.
“I was instrumental in recruiting and supporting Ginger’s selection as our new executive director,” Nalven told Hyperallergic over email. “She did succeed in bringing new energy to the organization, but got beyond a measured approach and beyond the limits established by the City of San Diego.”
Nalven and the other dissenting members have been threatening to organize to “regain control of the San Diego Art Institute” and demanding that Porcella be fired. The linchpin of their criticism is that since her tenure began, exhibitions have not only included mostly non-member artists, but also artists not based in San Diego. These and other grievances were articulated in a document presented to the board of directors in March. According to the terms of the institute’s current lease, which was signed in 1996 and continues through 2021, SDAI must use the city-owned space to “[e]xhibit the work of San Diego artist[s], provide lectures, classes, and special events related to the visual arts.” However, in their letter the members seem to conflate “San Diego artists” and “San Diego Art Institute members.” They write:
SDAI’s mission is to support and educate artists from the San Diego Region. Artwork from Los Angeles or New York artists must not displace artwork from the San Diego region. LA and New York already have thriving art scenes with great commercial and public support. We don’t need to nurture their artists. SDAI’s mission is to support and nurture artists from our region.
It’s an excellent idea to show some curated pieces from sources outside of our membership. That helps cross pollinate ideas, styles and techniques. But current Management has clearly distorted the City’s lease provision with SDAI by making outside artwork the only thing on the walls of SDAI. The December 2014 show allowed only 17 members of SDAI in the show and 15 of them had two pieces each!
Many observers see this continued emphasis on by-the-numbers rewards for members who’ve paid their dues ($150 per year) as an arcane remnant of the San Diego Business Men’s Art Club days.
“The artists of San Diego want to be seen in the context of the region and the context of the nation and the context of the world, so to juxtapose their works and exhibit them with artists from elsewhere is very much a part of what should be and is being done,” Davies said. “I hope that [Porcella] can pursue her vision so that she doesn’t get frustrated and decide to move somewhere else; too often in our city that’s happened with people in the arts.”
Most people Hyperallergic spoke to about the institute and its place in the San Diego art scene agree that the shift away from a “members first” approach is very welcome. It positions SDAI as a crucial platform in a city where emerging artists have few opportunities to show their work and often consequently choose to leave. It may be California’s second-most populous city, but San Diego’s proximity to the state’s biggest urban center means many young artists looking for ways to reach a wider audience move to Los Angeles, if not further.
“I wouldn’t use the term ‘brain drain,’ but it is true that things can be difficult in San Diego because there aren’t many institutions serving diverse communities and interests, whether in terms of culture, geography, art practice, or programming,” said Rujeko Hockley, the assistant curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum who attended the PhD program in art history at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). “UCSD is only one small part of the picture. It isn’t uncommon, there or at any other school, for people to come to study and then leave if opportunities arise (as I did). In my experience, MCASD was doing great work and still is, and there were certainly interesting alternative and artist-run spaces that were making efforts. However, there is absolutely a need for more voices in San Diego, as exemplified by the response to changes at the Art Institute.”
The changes Porcella has implemented have helped create a space for showcasing a greater variety of local voices within broader regional, national, and global currents in contemporary art. “I think the most significant sign of her success is that some of the San Diego and Tijuana artists that we most respect are now showing at the Art Institute,” Davies said. “It’s finally being used, after 74 years, to its potential.” As for the nine disgruntled members’ claims that SDAI has veered away from its mission or risks losing its lease, the executive director is unfazed.
“We’re not in violation of our bylaws or charter; we’ve even met with the city of San Diego, their lawyers, our lawyers, we’ve looked into it, we’re not doing anything untoward,” Porcella said. “I moved here a year and a half ago from New York. I didn’t know what to expect, and the work here is fantastic. I used to tell artists: ‘I’m sorry you live here, because there just isn’t the infrastructure to support really great art.’ But I’m trying to change that and make people know that there’s really good work here. We’re trying to keep people here.”