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San Diego Museum of Art and Museum of Photographic Arts announce merger

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 5/23/2023 Pam Kragen

The San Diego Museum of Art and the Museum of Photographic Arts will merge on July 1, the Balboa Park institutions announced today.

Under an agreement approved by both museums' leadership and boards of directors, MOPA's collection of more than 9,000 images by 850 artists and 22,000 books and related materials will be added to SDMA's own photography collection.

MOPA's two-story, 33,000-square-foot museum space — located in the historic Casa de Balboa building just across the Plaza de Panama from SDMA — will remain open through at least 2024 to accommodate MOPA's previously announced exhibition schedule. MOPA's 18-member staff will also be retained for at least the next year.

Deborah Klochko, MOPA's executive director and chief curator, will temporarily join the SDMA staff as a curatorial adviser to help smooth the transition, but she plans to retire at the end of 2023 after 17 years at the museum.

Klochko said she's grateful and excited to see MOPA's legacy carry on.

"Together, we'll be so much better and so much more, and that is incredibly exciting," Klochko said in an interview on Friday. "We have the opportunity to expand our reach and involve people in photography and help them better understand visual imagery."

MOPA history

MOPA was created in 1974 as a museum without walls. In 1983, it moved into the Casa de Balboa at 1649 El Prado in Balboa Park. In 2000, the museum reopened after a yearlong renovation and modernization that expanded its gallery space and added a classroom, theater, library and more.

In an effort to remove barriers to entry for people of all socioeconomic levels, MOPA introduced a "pay what you wish" admission policy in March 2015. While visitorship has increased over the years to 100,000 visitors annually, revenues have declined. According to its federal 990 — the form nonprofits file annually in place of a tax return — MOPA's net income fell from $1.92 million in 2015 to a net loss of $711,000 in 2016. From 2017 to 2022, annual net losses ranged from $440,000 to $1.8 million.

After the museum emerged from the pandemic, Klochko said she knew a permanent solution was needed.

"COVID changed everything," she said. "It just became clear that it was time to rethink what the museum model was going to be and what is a museum for the next 40 years going to look like? Both of those were hand in hand."

Klochko said that as long as she's worked in Balboa Park, there have been ongoing conversations between the leaders at the park's museums on how to merge or share operation services to reduce expenses. But nothing ever came of it before because of the vast difference between the different museums' missions, sizes and audiences.

A meeting of the minds

Fortunately, Klochko said there was an obvious way to keep MOPA's legacy and collections intact. It was just a short walk away and helped by the long-established friendship she had formed with Roxana Velásquez, SDMA's executive director and CEO for the past 12 years.

"We really began conversations on this in October of last year, but it comes out of a longer relationship of mutual respect, having so many similarities in terms of education and the fact there’s a fabulous growing photo collection at the San Diego Museum of Art," Klochko said.

Velásquez said on Friday that photography has always been an integral part of SDMA's collection and exhibitions.

Over the past eight years, thousands of photographs have been added to SDMA's 22,000-piece art collection and the museum has curated and hosted more than 20 photographic exhibitions over the past decade. Photographs and video have also been integrated into most of the museum's non-photographic exhibitions for contextual comparisons and for providing historic education to exhibit visitors.

"We're celebrating what I see and what Deborah sees as growth and advancement," Velásquez said. "We both believe in this type of efficiency and streamling, and we share the same viewpoint of missions.

"We’ve been collaborating since I arrived here, lending pieces to each other and visiting each other's exhibitions. It’s an easy merge in that sense," Velásquez said. "Photography is art and this is an art museum that entails and includes and exhibits different photography. It’s a natural fit, I would say, but exceptional for the San Diego area and for the region, and we are hoping it will become a model one."

The future

On July 1, SDMA will inaugurate a new department called the Museum of Photographic Arts at the San Diego Museum of Art, focused solely on photographic arts.

Velásquez said the next year will be focused on integrating the collections and carrying out MOPA's ambitious schedule of exhibitions. Right now, MOPA has three exhibits under way: a collection of video portraits by Robert Wilson; Victorian-era photographs by British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron; and vibrant large-scale photographs by San Diego artist Suda House.

Velásquez said the MOPA museum space will serve as an extension of SDMA through 2024. No decision has been made on whether to keep the MOPA space after that. The MOPA location's future as a part of SDMA will likely be determined by the art museum's ambitious growth plans.

In March, SDMA announced it had hired the world-renowned architecture firm Foster + Partners to design a new west wing to replace the wing it added in the 1960s. The new structure will include an education center, restaurants, basement and rooftop space — plus, perhaps room to duplicate what's available at the MOPA space. The new wing will break ground in 2026, which is SDMA's 100th anniversary.

MOPA is one of just three remaining independent photography museums in the United States, excluding those on college campuses. With the merger this summer, that number will fall to two. But Klochko and Velásquez say they don't see the merger as an "end" for MOPA.

"I consider this a triumph because kindred spirits aligned and were able to make this happen," Velásquez said. "It’s not about my territory or your territory. It's about focusing on the end result, which is communicating and sending a strong message."

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.


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