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.”
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Thanks for posting! Seems like a lot of really exciting stuff is going on there these days. I’m looking forward to playing music there on August 15 with Gary Wilson!
You like it just because you got a gig.
And it seems like you dis-like it, because you’re not getting the easy access you’re accustomed to. Sorry buddy, art has to stand on its own merits, not the fact that the painter/s belong/s to some clubby society.
Not it at all, and I completely agree that art DOES need to stand on its own. That is exactly why not all members get work shown in every show. As a matter of fact, I believe it says that in the membership application. Membership is NOT a guarantee of exhibition. I was a member for many years and was frequently turned down for display, frankly because my work was too “dark” and too “21st century” for local tastes. The fact is that the show that is portrayed for the public has nothing to do with being a member, it has everything to do with whomever is the curator! The curator changes for every show! All that member artists are asked to do is pay dues to help support the gallery because it is a non-profit.
Tony, why does it seem you’re only here to tear down everyone who has come with a valid comment? I’d be much more open to your concerns if your other input didn’t come off so bitterly.
I may sound bitter, and I apologize for that, I meant to sound passionate for local art. I don’t mean to tear anyone down, but I feel like that is what is being done to the local artists that should be able to display their work at SDAI.
Great article! I fully support what SDAI is doing under Ginger’s management. So many inspiring shows that are attracting fantastic artists and huge crowds. They’ve become my favorite Balboa Park attraction.
In fact, I’m actually the photographer who took the first and last pictures, as seen here on my site:
and I’d love it if you could add a photo credit to the pictures. I’m truly flattered that you used them, and I’d love to be able to share my other photos of events I shot at SDAI with a wider audience.
Hi Emily. Apologies for the lack of photo credits, SDAI didn’t specify. Will add them now.
Hey, no problem. I figured as much. Thanks so much! I’ll be sure to share the article with my contacts. ?
Do you support the changes because they are good for art in SD or because you took the photos and want some recognition?
Yes, I do happen to think that the changes are great for SD art.
Care to explain your reasoning? What artistic need is being filled by the new SDAI that isn’t being addressed in other galleries in the city?
did you read the article? the answer to your question has been answered within it.
Andrea if you read all my other posts you’ll see that I am contradicting the accuracy of the article and contesting the point that the changes are good for SD art because while the article claims it is “showcasing a greater variety of local voices within broader regional, national, and global currents in contemporary art” I am saying that it is actually silencing the artistic voices of local SD artists by replacing their art with that of non-local, already established artists, which is not the purview of SDAI. My comment to Emily was to hopefully gain a better understanding of what the “good” of the changes is in her opinion.
It’s not silencing the local artists. most of the younger local artists like the change that’s happening. furthermore you aren’t being silenced because you can apply to the open calls just like everyone else. i wish you could see that you also benefit from what ginger is doing. by looking regionally she is also attracting people outside of san diego to start paying attention to what’s happening in the city and hoping getting outside collectors and galleries to invest in the local art community.
Kudos to Ginger and to Hyperallergic for covering this! Not everyone in San Diego is playing nice BTW, someone or someones are sending threats to the gallery, notes and letters. It isn’t cute.
More power to Porcella! I was put in a position to reinvent just a regional annual exhibit that was nothing but an insiders club-with huge award prizes. I expanded it to a 300 mile radius, and had open submission calls for the first time. Boom! The results were amazing-it instantly was a progressive, challenging event! The “club” members weren’t good enough to get juried in anymore. There was wah wahing, angry emails, gossip. I was the devil. Then they all just went elsewhere with their flower and outhouse paintings, and all was well. Sometimes people just need to be pulled kicking and screaming into the 21st century. It’s good for them even if they don’t know it at the time. San Diego deserves A-level institutions.
All is well if you get your way? Is that what you’re saying? Or do you mean that people who paint flowers should have no voice in the art world because it isn’t 21st century enough?
I looked up the SDAI donors list on the web site. It is underwritten by public funding. That means it serves the public, not just people with memberships. It is that way with any museum, institute or art center. The organization I worked for for 5 years, Dogwood Arts of Knoxville, TN, is underwritten by public funding and private sponsorship also. Their previous policy was to mail out submission letters to their pre-curated insider group. There was no public announcement in the paper or anywhere else. The $4,000 in awards stayed in the watercolor society and their cronies. I came in, made it a 300 mile perimeter regional, (Dogwood Regional Fine Arts Exhibit http://dogwoodregionalfineartsexhibit.blogspot.com/ ) had open calls go to all media, national call online sites, and to an email list I had built of every artist and university art prof. and adjunct in the area. I quadrupled the income from submission fees and put the exhibit on the map from the 1st year. I didn’t get my way. The TOTAL community a non-profit art organization should serve got their way. And, the excellent jurors I’d hire would still let a few flower paintings in here and there. IF they were interesting enough.
Exactly my point! Thanks for re-iterating what I have been trying to say all along. This gallery should serve the people, and the people it serves are from San Diego by definition. Not artists from L.A. or NYC or Tijuana. Your example of getting the word out to more San Diego based artists is the solution the gallery needed all along. Not bring established artists from other cities! SDAI holds an annual International Show that has artists from all over the world, I know because I volunteered at the gallery to package and ship works of art all over the world. It is a fantastic show and very few people from SD ever get juried into that show…but on purpose! The purview of SDAI is to serve the “San Diego Region”. By changing the gallery to showcase artists from other areas it is becoming exactly like every other private art gallery! The MCASD does that very thing, so that need is filled in SD. The smaller unknown local artists are being pushed out in favor of well knowns and that is what I believe Mr. Nalven and the other dissenting few are trying to prevent with their protest! Rather than really trying to explore true SD art and find those diamonds in the rough who may be lacking in exhibition space and notoriety by bringing in already established artists is killing one of the only places in a big city where those people still have an artistic voice. SD is full of private galleries and already has 2 MCASD locations where they can see established artists from all over the world. Don’t take away the last true voice of the members in SD just because they aren’t “21st” century enough. That was my point all along. Look to the colleges and recruit new members, post ads in the local papers and on the website for calls to local artists. Don’t become MCASD part three.
If you want a good example of how a metro area handles regional vs national/international while still keeping edgy and progressive, look to Atlanta. The High Museum rarely looks local-they do blockbusters- but the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center and MOCA GA handles both local and statewide art fantastically, while still bringing in dynamic work from other places. ACAC has a great studio artist program for city artists. Also, the direction for many museums around the country now is, in their permanent collection, to heavily focus on the regional art of the area both past and current, so not as to be a cookie cutter of the collection (specifically contemporary) you find anywhere else. The old joke about going to all the parties at collectors houses in Miami during Basel- “they all have work by the same 30 artists”- can be said of many museums. If you want to explore a region culturally, the local art and history museums should have the best of that in their collections. Then- they should bring in amazing exhibits internationally for the temp. exhibits. But always, non-profits that depend on public support should be open to all regionally when there are juried shows- not just members.
I’ve been to the Altanta CAC and it perfectly demonstrates my point. Atlanta as a city has the MOCA which handles and the CAC. San Diego has the MCASD (2 locations worth) and the SDAI, along with the SD Museum of Art, Mingei International Museum, Museum of Photographic Art, and the Timken Museum of Art. All within Balboa park! Of these museums, SDAI that used to be “Museum of the living artist” to fit in with the theme in the park was the only showcase for local art. The only “requirement”, and I use that term loosely, was that you contribute to support the gallery, in the form of a “membership fee” before you submit your work. While volunteering there I helped artists who were bringing in work for consideration to fill out the membership form right then and there. Being a member there is no different than being a member at MCASD. Membership only means that a fee was paid. Nothing more. As I have already said, perhaps increasing membership is the way to go. Raise more money, encourage more local submissions of art, not squeeze out local artists in favor of established artists.
The other key factor about SDAI that sets it apart from both ACAC and MCASD is that is is not a “Contemporary Art Center”. Never have I seen anything that touts SDAI as a contemporary gallery. They also do not maintain a private collection of work. All the other galleries we have been comparing SDAI to do have both of these factors. SDAI is open to all regional artists, that is the only requirement along with an initial $150 annual fee to submit work. That’s it. There are no large cash prizes being offered or members only stipulations. Maybe its the word “membership” that is the real issue here. If they did everything else the same but removed the word membership this argument would all go away.
I was once a member of SDAI but I moved away so I do not show artwork there anymore. I can see this from both an inside and outside viewpoint. You have to take the origin of the gallery and the concerns of the members into consideration, without them there would be no gallery. The place was founded by “members” which is to say that individuals thought so much of art that they pay to have a place to show and possibly sell their work. Isn’t this what all craftsmen and artists do? Call it a storefront, artwalk, sidewalk sale, etsy, whatever you want, it all amounts to someone creating art and trying to display and sell it. Not a bad thing. To show work at SDAI they ask that you become a member and help support the gallery. Is this a problem? Nobody in the history of SDAI has been denied membership as long as they have $150. So why not just make these new artists members? Oh, wait a second, this is the SAN DIEGO art institute. Not the Tijuana art institute and not the L.A. art institute. Hmm, that could be an issue. Now, in come art critics and critiques. The art is mediocre…well not everyone is Picasso. Does that mean that they do not get a voice? Does that mean even if they pay, they are still not allowed to show their work because someone else deems it unworthy? Damn straight. Even members works often get rejected from shows at SDAI. So are you blaming the artists or curators for mediocre shows?
Now, on the other hand, has the gallery become stagnant? Is it able to sustain itself as a non-profit? Perhaps instead of an art overhaul it really needs a financial overhaul. Or do the crowds just not buy art? Each artist who submits work for a show pays a fee, even members. Now, each show is curated, not by a member, but by an outside artist or curator. So, even after paying an artist might not get into the show. That’s always a disappointment and should be all the critique the artists need. When I showed work there SDAI held a bi-annual “c-note” show where all the work was priced at $100 to promote sales. That was usually a successful event. So are the changes for artistic or financial reasons?
That begs the question, if the members aren’t bringing in good enough art, why not go find artists who are already established? Maybe they aren’t from San Diego and maybe they aren’t members; the art is good and might sell without a discount! I’ll give you one good reason why not…they don’t need it! The article states the changes are bringing in established artists already showing in other galleries and areas, so exactly how is that giving a new voice to San Diego art? By showing what has already been shown elsewhere you are just re-creating the menu of another restaurant. In reference to Mr. Davies of MCASD, I have seen “less than stellar” work displayed there as well. But I’m not suggesting he re-vamp the place to fit my desires. Who is he to comment that SDAI is finally being used “to it’s full potential”. If he means it’s being run like his galleries that most local artists never have a chance to display work in, even if they pay to do so, then he is right. If it means he is creating a voice for San Diego based artists then he is very sorely mistaken. I’ve also been a member of MCASD and been to their events. What Ginger is doing is turning SDAI into MCASD part three. Bring in DJ’s and bring in known artists and bring in younger crowds who want a new place to party and you know what you’ve got? An L.A. club art scene. I say, if you want that, then please visit our neighbor city to the north. If you change SDAI into one of these galleries then you are destroying a true San Diego institution. I believe what Mr. Nalven is trying to protect isn’t “mediocre art” nor does he want an exclusive “members only” art club. He wants a true voice for actual San Diego artists. Exactly what this gallery was founded to do.
What is the solution to all this? Here is what I propose. To Ms. Shulick, just admit that you ARE changing the dynamic of the gallery. You admit to just moving to SD and now you want to make it into NYC in order to “keep artists here”. I call BS on that one. No successful artist is going to just stick to one place. You have changed the name and the website (which at the time of this writing was malfunctioning) and the purview of the place. Stand up and say why. Really say why, not to keep artists in San Diego because that’s not the business of SDAI. If it is because you want SDAI to be more like MCASD so you can have your name on a gallery tht shows “successful” vice “San Diego” artists, then perhaps SDAI isn’t a good fit for you after all. Perhaps a job is availible with MCASD? To Mr. Davies and Mr. Hockley, while your opinions are appreciated, neither of you claim to be members of the SDAI and therefore have no dog in this fight. Mr. Hockley left town for other opportunities and Mr. Davies already has a gallery in SD to run. Finally for Mr. Sutton, I appreciate reading about this issue, however, your article seems to suffer from a narrow and one sided viewpoint. Perhaps if more of the 230 paying members of the institute were represented by the article it wouldn’t have come across as such.
That place was never worth visiting until the last few years.Whatever they’ve started doing, I hope that they continue doing it.
Ginger and the new board are doing a great job of resuscitating an institution which needed a change of both leadership and direction. One hopes that those artists who feel displaced will find alternative venues for their work, but SDAI now provides a place where both new and more established artists can have a viable dialog and gain from the enthusiasm of this vigorous director and her supporters.
Jeff, I appreciate your comments, but could you possibly say where those “displaced” artists would possibly exhibit work? Can you name one other venue in SD where smaller local artists show a diversified body of work from various genres? Hope is a powerless emotion when no viable alternative exists. These “displaced” artists are the very reason the SDAI exists! They banded together and formed a group with a membership to support the display of their work. Alternately, established artists have several viable exhibition spaces in the city. Now those local artists are having their artistic voices silenced in favor of the “status quo” which is to display work of artists already being shown.
Tony, glad that you can appreciate my comments and sorry that this change at SDAI has negatively affected you. Sincerely! I have been a practicing artist for many years and have made my living exclusively by selling my work for the past 20+ years. Has it been a smooth ride? No. Have I needed to find my own way? Yes. So it is.
If you feel strongly about something, dig in, work hard and don’t expect life to arrange itself for your particular needs, Tony. If you truly want to display and sell your art, just do it. Complaining will never be a good substitute for a clear vision and well directed effort.
Jeff, to be honest the changes do not affect me at all. As I said in my first post I used to be a member but no longer show work with SDAI. I applaud those artists, like yourself, who have been able to make their living through their art. However, you miss my point with the changes at SDAI. The artist members of the SDAI came together to do exactly what you describe. They feel strongly about their art and the art of local people from San Diego. They formed an organization and received backing from the city in which they live and work to pursue their art and showcase it. So, make no mistake, I’m not complaining about anything. I believe the members of SDAI have clear vision and a well directed effort, but that effort has been subverted by someone in which they put their trust. Instead of continuing the purview of the Institute, Ginger has changed the dynamic completely and has taken the onus from showcasing local art to showcasing established artists, regardless of their region. That is what this whole thing is all about. The San Diego Art Institute is not the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, nor is it a place for artists to make a living selling their work. It is simply a gallery started by a collective of artists from SD who wanted the work displayed there to be representative of local SD art. Now it seems that local art is being replaced with non-regional art at the expense of the local artists in the name of progress or modernization, or whatever. Artists being silenced, displaced, or told ” If you truly want to display and sell your art, just do it” and when they see something that they have worked hard to build are now being told to stop complaining, even by another artist, is what I find sad. Progress doesn’t have to mean tear down the past to make way for the future, it can also mean respect the past and learn from it, before the last true bastion of local art is destroyed.
Well then, let me try this approach: Things do change; change can cause discomfort and seem – even be – unfair. So it is. One has a couple of choices: find a new direction or continue to shake your fist at the present and pine away for the past. What Ginger is doing is revitalizing what had become a rather tired program. Difficult to fault that effort, at least for me, and I do not believe that any of the original members are prevented from participating.
Sorry, but that’s the best I can do. And I do hope all those artists who have lost something will find an even better alternative. Perhaps even create a new one for themselves, just as those who originally formed the “institute” long ago.
I don’t want to have a running dialog, so if you comment I will read it, but out of respect for you I will not make any further comments. I wish you well.
Thanks for the civil conversation Jeff! I wish you continued success with your art!
I just want to state that despite what others are writing in the comments, SDAI has not displaced local artists with non-local artists. Our mission is and will always be to support and showcase the work of local contemporary artists. We have ONE international juried show every other year, this year being our 53rd.
We are showcasing more individual artists from San Diego than ever before, representing a blend of both emerging, established, and mid-career artists, many of whom were previously disenfranchised by San Diego’s art scene. Shouldn’t SDAI be a place where artists of any level can show in their hometown and NOT have to go to LA? We are much more inclusive, and those who come to our shows believe that it is a better representation of what is happening in contemporary art in the region.
I will also clarify as well that we do not require people to be members to show their work at SDAI. We are a nonprofit, not a commercial art gallery and thus, not sales focused. There are many outlets for commercial work in San Diego, and while we do show very commercial work, we also want to be an incubator for artists to experiment and make innovative, new work. How many other places like this exist in San Diego? Isn’t allowing artists to create new work imperative to developing a culturally viable society?
I have always had an open door policy, so if anyone has any complaints or would like to request a meeting with me, I am open to doing so.
As a former member of SDAI, I support efforts to oust Porcella as Director. What was once a fair and democratic venue for aspiring regional artists of all media and genres has become, under Pocella’s steerage, an exclusive, politicized, cronyist, pseudo-intellectual plutocracy that has nothing to do with its former constituency. You may not know that Porcella was ousted from a previous curatorial post for showing favoritism to her (then fiancé) husband. The leopard has not changed its spots. While the former SDAI system and venue prior to the hire of Porcella had room for improvement, it was at least more egalitarian in its representation of the diverse and eclectic base of artists and artisans in the San Diego region, which is as it should be, especially for a publicly funded entity. I hope for the return of the SDAI to a democratic, eclectic, public institution that does not show favoritism or steer with political or cultural bias.
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