The masterpieces at the Timken Museum of Art are all more than a century old. But it’s not just the paintings that conjure the past.

The furnishings at the little Balboa Park museum, which sits in a once-controversial Modernist building built in 1965, make a visit feel like stepping into a time capsule from the 1960s. There are no labels next to the paintings, a tradition from the days when many patrons already knew about the history of art. And the octogenarian volunteers who station themselves at the front desks are one of the museum’s trademarks.

John Wilson, the Timken’s executive director since 2008, has only a limited ability to tinker with the museum’s basics. It’s free, it’s devoted to art of the past, and it will stay that way. But he’s managed to pull in a new audience by using the modern to highlight the artworks by the likes of Rembrandt and Rubens. (The youngest painting is more than a century old, and the oldest is from 1310.)

This year, the museum held an installation of video portraits of celebrities inspired by European masterpieces. An iPad app released last month highlights a painter who’s the subject of a special exhibition. And this month, the museum will hold its annual fashion show of clothing inspired by the Timken’s artwork.

I sat down with Wilson, who came to the Timken from a museum in Omaha, to talk about the institution’s mission, its finances and its future.

Describe the museum to someone who hasn’t been here.

It’s probably the smallest internationally important art museum in the world, with European and American art and Russian icons.

It has Louvre-quality works of art in this landmark Southern California Modernist building with just exquisite natural light. And it’s free to everyone.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

Raising the resources to do our jobs.

We’re very fortunate because we have an endowment that was given to us when we established. Our foundation’s resources exist to give these masterpieces to the public for free. There are a lot of people who would say you should be doing more than that. Our board, our professional staff and I agree.

That’s what we raise money for: doing everything beyond simply presenting these works of art. We spend the vast majority of our money on education programs, including exhibitions, tours and storytelling for children and school groups from both sides of the border, docent tours for groups, gallery talks and lectures. We also spend money on conservation of the art, acquisitions and marketing and promoting all of the above.

How has the economy affected your endowment?

My welcome-to-San-Diego present in 2008 was about a 23 percent drop in the endowment. It’s now essentially returned to where it was before the economy crashed.

I feel there’s more uncertainty today for people who are out there giving money than there was at the end of 2008.

We’re doing fine in terms of our grant support and membership renewals. But when it comes to the individual gifts, you really never know. Sometimes you’ll get six or seven times what you budgeted for, and some years you won’t get very much at all. We’re in a not-very-much-at-all year right now. We’re still doing all the things we wanted to do, but the board and staff knows about it.

How many visitors do you get?

We had over 163,000 last year, and we’ve had record attendance the last three years.

It’s partly the fact that the economy tanked. Times are tough and people are looking for free things to do. We’re lucky that trolley drivers drop people off and say, “That’s the museum that costs $7 to get into, and that one’s free.”

Tell me about the Timken’s Modernist building, which is unlike other buildings in Balboa Park and still annoys some critics because of the way it stands out. It was commissioned by the Putnam sisters, who came to San Diego from Vermont in the early 20th century and founded the museum in the 1960s.

Anything is complemented by something that is different to it, which is why you have sweet-and-sour pork. The Putnam Foundation wanted a modern building, and there was a very strong trend of building modern museums to house the artwork of the past.

This building is all about art and making sure there are no barriers to seeing art. You walk into the foyer, you pass two window wells with gardens on either side, and you transition from outdoors to indoors to “outdoors,” although you’re still indoors, and then you can look at galleries.

The whole point there is that the building disappears and all you see is art in gold frames. Taken to an extreme, that’s why we have no labels. There should be nothing on the wall to distract you from your concentration on the art.

We are really struggling with balancing the sort of historical peculiarity of the Timken, and its desire to be all about the art with no distractions, with a desire that we want to get the information to the public that probably doesn’t know very much but wants to know. That’s why we have a gallery guide, an audio tour, an app and docents on duty every day.

Where do you see the museum in five to 10 years? Do you imagine a place with labels on the walls and patrons carrying iPads?

I want to balance the peculiarity of the Timken experience with a 21st-century visitor experience. Technology will be a big part of that.

And I think we’ll see the interior of the building restored to more of its 1965 design as mid-century architecture becomes more popular. In four years, it will be a viable historic building, 50 years old. We want to show it as an important piece of California architectural history.

We think the plaza out in front will be a gathering point, like any sort of piazza in Europe or Mexico. I’ll be advocating that we ought to be open later.

About that: You support the plan to remake Balboa Park, which would clear cars from the parking lot in front of the Timken and turn it into a plaza. You’re a free museum, but if the plan happens, there will be a charge for a parking garage.

The paid parking will be near the center of the park. We always pay for convenience, whether it’s going to a 7-Eleven around the corner or getting the front row seats at a play or sporting event. If you really want the convenience of parking close to what you want to do, maybe $5 is reasonable.

My main concern is that we have a number of volunteers, some of whom have handicapped placards for their car, and they’ll have to park quite a ways away, whereas now they can park close. One wants to make sure one’s volunteers, who are giving of their time and themselves to make Balboa Park a better place for the whole community, are taken care of.

It’s a challenge to get people in here in the first place to see old art, isn’t it?

The preconceived idea of what’s in the Timken is “dead white guys, it’s old art with people wearing clothes I don’t get, and the men have powdered wigs on.”

But the great thing about this art is that it’s the cream of the crop. In many cases, the way it got to stand the test of time was that it was revolutionary in its own time. It was the contemporary art that offended people, broke boundaries and changed the way we looked at art.

Interview conducted and edited by Randy Dotinga. Please contact him directly at and follow him on Twitter:

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at and follow him on Twitter:

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