SEP. 10, 2018 12:45 PM
The Timken Museum of Art is coming out of its shell.
For the past 2½ years, the small museum — known for its permanent collection of European old masters, Russian icons and American masterpieces — has been steadily making changes to its environment and exhibitions, drawing in new faces to discover what many call one of the finest small museums in the country.
“We’ve been focused on the three Es: educate, excite and experience. We’ve been working really hard on the visitor experience and making them engaged with the art by having a lot more information available on the collections and having gateway events and exhibitions that bring people in. Then by virtue of being here, they see the collection,” said Megan Pogue, who took the museum’s reins as executive director in May of 2015.
The museum’s newest exhibition, “Rococo Rivals and Revivals,” opening Sept. 21, will combine paintings of old masters with contemporary pieces that were inspired by the Rococo period.
Chris Antemann, a porcelain sculptor based in Oregon, has a collection of figurines that give a modern twist to sensuous Rococo themes of romance and courtship. She is also creating a piece based on the painting “Blindman’s Buff” by Jean-Honoré Fragonard in the Timken’s collection.
A piece by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare called “the Swing Headless” is inspired by Fragonard’s painting “The Swing.” Shonibare, whose work explores race and social division, has taken the scene of a woman on a swing with one man pushing her and another man in the bushes trying to see up her billowing dress and has created a life-size sculpture of a swinging headless woman in batik African fabric.
“I’m mostly interested in this relationship between some contemporary artists and why they have seized on certain things about the Rococo as a reflection of the era that we’re all living through right now,” said Derrick Cartwright, Timken’s director of curatorial affairs.
But while the contemporary works are a sub-theme of the exhibition, the stars of the show are the three principal painters of the Rococo era: Fragonard, Francois Boucher and Jean Antoine Watteau. Fragonard and Boucher are in the museum’s collection. And through a loan exchange with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Timken obtained Watteau’s “The Italian Comedians.” The ability to display all three Rococo artists side by side, was the genesis of the show.
“There was a sense of competition that existed between these artists. They all knew each other. Fragonard was Boucher’s student. Boucher admired Watteau a great deal. They all sort of liked each other and considered themselves rivals to one another,” Cartwright said. “This is a show that looks at this spirit of competition and rivalry that existed in 18th-century French art.”
The show, in the museum’s special exhibition gallery, will consist of 15 pieces and will also include period background music curated by San Diego Symphony pre-concert lecturer and violinist Nuvi Mehta.
“It’s not a big show, but it’s the kind of thing a person or a family could come in and spend a half an hour, 45 minutes and really get something meaningful out of without feeling overwhelmed by art,” Cartwright said.
These kinds of approachable exhibitions have been part of the Timken’s effort to become a more welcoming institution. The plan is to have three temporary shows per year based on a loan or a piece in the collection with the summer show an installation by a local artist.
The museum has always been accessible as the only free museum in Balboa Park, but for many years it was seen as a static place where visitors needed to pass through a turnstile and go between two security desks to get to the galleries.
Since Pogue’s tenure, the lobby has been redesigned with a concierge desk, a gift shop and seating. A replica of a 16th-century statue by Giambologna in the rotunda was removed to accommodate the increasing crowds at the free lectures held in conjunction with the exhibitions. In 2017, 250,000 people visited the Timken, up 35 percent from the prior year. Lectures routinely draw 100 visitors.
In December, the lobby area turns into a glittering display of ornaments with “Jewels of the Season.” An installation by San Diego State University students takes the ornaments, designed by local artists Florence Hord and Elizabeth Schlappi, beyond the Christmas tree.
“We went from a tree in the corner that had been there for nearly 30 years — and most people never noticed the beautiful ornaments — to all of a sudden 35,000 visitors last December,” Pogue said. “The ornaments have now become a really wonderful new tradition for the Timken, and it’s been really great gateway to the museum.”
The effort to become more user-friendly has also spread to the collection with informational plaques now in three out of the six galleries.
“We’ve been going through each gallery and very methodically adding didactic labels,” Pogue said.
“For a long time, the Timken had basically whatever plaque was on the painting and that was the only information that was shared with the public,” Cartwright said. “For the average visitors for whom this may be the only museum they will visit with any regularity, we owe them something more. Megan and I both feel that our job is to share as much information and interest we can.”
To that end, the museum launched an app last year. For now, it has the basic catalog information, but Pogue said, “We are very focused on the visitor experience, so technology is big for our future wish list with major improvements to the app, but also figuring out other fun and engaging ways for people to connect with the collection.”
The collection includes “St. Bartholomew,” the only Rembrandt on public display in San Diego. The vast majority of the museum’s art stems from Anne and Amy Putnam, who started buying paintings 1920s. In the 1950s, the Putnam Foundation, which continued to acquire old masterworks, was established by attorney Walter Ames. Ames tapped Henry Timken, Jr. and the Timken Foundation to help underwrite the building of the museum, which opened its doors in 1965.
The modernist building, which was strongly opposed by city leaders, was designed by Frank Hope and Associates with bronze, glass and travertine marble. (The building was only approved after Ames threatened to take the collection elsewhere.) After more than 50 years, its place in Balboa Park is still not fully embraced, but Pogue said the building’s architecture has become a draw for its mid-century design.
“We have people coming from around the world just to see the building. And that’s been pretty eye-opening for me,” Pogue said. “It also gave us an opportunity to create this new division called the Modernist where we recognize that some people are connected to the Timken for our collection others may be connected for our architecture.”
The idea is to get people to the museum. The power of the paintings should do the rest.
“I think we’re really trying to address different communities one by one and figure out how to have something for everybody without disrupting or diluting our core mission, which obviously is European old masters, American paintings, Russian icons and a few tapestries,” Pogue said.
“Rococo Rivals and Revivals”
When: Sept. 21 to Dec. 31
Where: Timken Museum of Art, 1500 El Prado, Balboa Park
Phone: (619) 239-5548
Schimitschek is a freelance writer.