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An air tinged with mischief hung over the gallery featuring the work of 18th-century artist Thomas Gainsborough at the San Diego Museum of Art on Thursday night. Men dressed in ties and jackets, women in dresses or slacks and sparkling tops spoke in stage whispers before the 7-foot-tall paintings of the scandalous women of Gainsborough’s time.

In the adjacent gallery, artist Howard Hodgkin’s assistant, Andy Barker, wheeled him through a room filled with the artist’s colorful, dancing brushwork and art lovers grinning at the lively paintings. As people drifted from the Gainsborough room to the Hodgkin room, the timbre of their voices became brighter.

Although the official opening of the museum’s Gainsborough and Hodgkin show is Saturday morning, a few people got sneak peeks Thursday night and Friday morning. We’ve been following the process and learning what it takes for the museum to put up this show, from bare walls to the finished product.

I went along Thursday as the museum’s biggest donors were invited to see the show of the two British artists, the museum’s first major show featuring European art in recent years. After writing about it for a month, I was bowled over by the exhibit.

“Three cheers! Let’s keep it up at this level,” said Lydia Ringwald, an artist, who drove down from Laguna Hills to be there Thursday.

Christine Stadler, a La Jolla resident whose husband, Fred, once served on the museum’s board of trustees, said, “Gainsborough is such a big name, this can’t help but please many people.”

On Friday morning, museum members, lenders to the exhibitions and friends of the artist were invited in.

Museum officials hope the remarkable show featuring British artists who painted 200 years apart will herald a new era: more donors, higher attendance and better opportunities for big shows in the future. The show includes pieces from the Tate in England, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the National Gallery in London and the Reina Sofia in Madrid.

These loans open up new partnership opportunities, said Julia Marciari-Alexander, the museum’s deputy director of curatorial affairs and education.

“Their confidence in us as an institution that they can lend to cements relationships,” Marciari-Alexander said. “That will only mean that we will come more frequently to the top of mind when looking for partnerships.”

People attending Thursday’s opening said they felt this exhibition would bring new prominence to the San Diego museum. Perry Meyer, owner of Meyer Fine Art, a gallery in Little Italy, said he expects people to come from all over the country to see the exhibit. His gallery, which specializes in works on paper, has several pieces by Hodgkin for sale.

“This is one of the most important shows the museum has put together in recent years,” Meyer said.

Tom Gildred, president of the San Diego Museum of Art’s board of trustees, smiled as the excitement swirled around him at Thursday’s opening.

“I think this will bring in a whole new combination of people interested in art in the community because it combines the English contemporary with the classical,” he said. “And I think it does raise our profile.”

If the exhibit goes how it did at the Cincinnati Art Museum, where the Gainsborough portion of the show most recently hung, this exhibit will draw more people into the museum. In Cincinnati the exhibit was paired with an exhibition of wedding dresses.

As curator Benedict Leca from the Cincinnati museum walked around the exhibit in San Diego on Thursday, he said he was very pleased another part of the country would enjoy the extraordinary works.

Dani Dodge has been following the installation of this show at the San Diego Museum of Art this month. She can be reached at Dani@DaniDodge.com.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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