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The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s La Jolla location is set to debut with an expanded art experience this spring

A grand re-opening will feature thoughtfully designed spaces that honor its roots as the former home of Ellen Browning Scripps

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When her house at 700 Prospect Street was destroyed by fire in 1915, Ellen Browning Scripps commissioned architect Irving Gill, a pioneer in the modernist movement, to build her a new fireproof concrete home using the same architectural language he had used for The Bishop’s School and the La Jolla Woman’s Club across the street.

Built more than 100 years ago, Scripps’ home and her choice of style remain at the heart of the building, now the flagship location of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, which has been closed for renovation since 2017. With construction nearly complete, MCASD will unveil its $100 million expansion this spring — a renovation that doubles its size, quadruples its gallery area, increases meeting spaces for the public, and includes new outdoor spaces connecting it with the community around it.

Looking north from the Una Davis and Family Terrace
Looking north from the Una Davis and Family Terrace

The finishing touches are taking place as of this writing, and only last month the museum received a National Endowment of the Arts grant to ensure that the opening exhibition, Selections from the Collection, is mounted safely in the new galleries.

Known for the extraordinary rotating shows the museum brings in from around the world, MCASD also has a remarkable collection of its own. “Now, at last, we’ll have the space to showcase the work the museum has collected over the decades,” exults Kathryn Kanjo, MCASD’s David C. Copley Director and CEO. “The collection includes more than 5,300 objects dating from 1950 to the present, roughly the dates of the museum’s existence. For the first time in our history, we will be able to display our permanent collection alongside the exhibitions we bring in.”

Looking south from the Jackson Terrace
Looking south from the Jackson Terrace

International in scope, MCASD’s permanent collection demonstrates a pride in both time and place, boasting strengths in abstraction and minimalism, as well as California art since 1960, Latin American art, and installation art. “In many ways, it is a portrait of our lifetimes,” says Kanjo.

The museum has been renovated and expanded several times since 1941, when Scripps’ trustees donated the house to what was then the Art Center of La Jolla. In 1996, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown carried out a renovation that re-exposed the façade of the original house which had been hidden for years.

Art Park, built on a former parking lot, is open to the public
Art Park, built on a former parking lot, is open to the public

This time, the expansion was entrusted to Selldorf Architects, a firm with clients ranging from the Frick Collection in New York to The National Gallery in London that has a reputation for creating remarkable spaces to showcase art that are also sensitive to their surroundings and programming.

“The goal [in La Jolla] was to allow the site and views of the Pacific Ocean guide circulation and instill a generous and inclusive spirit,” explains chief architect Annabelle Selldorf.

“The museum is not just a building for art,” says Kanjo. “It is a space for people to encounter that art, whether alone or with others.”

Gill Court, in front of the original Scripps house
Gill Court, in front of the original Scripps house

Kanjo’s thinking aligns with a transformation that, over the past few decades, has seen museums turn from staid, temple-like repositories into hubs of activity that attract and actively engage members of the community.

In addition to providing more gallery space, the new design includes a large entry to the south that shifts the flow, while expansive views of the coast and two new ocean-view terraces celebrate the breathtaking location. In keeping with its inclusive spirit, the renovation also turns a previous parking lot into an actual park, open to all. 

Along with Selections from the Collection, MCASD’s reopening will also feature Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s, the first exhibition to focus on the work of the French American artist best known locally for her Sun God, an
exuberantly colored 14-foot bird placed atop a 15-foot concrete arch that is part of the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego. mcasd.org

Featured Photo Jacobs Hall, one of the museum’s new meeting spaces, offers a spectacular ocean view
Image Credits Vincent Knakal

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