For all the noise over the future of the Plaza de Panama and that notorious lily pond brawl, Balboa Park’s Palisades cul-de-sac has tended to stay pretty quiet.

On one edge, the Automotive Museum is featuring a temporary exhibition of muscle cars alongside its permanent collection of rare and quirky automobiles: a car driven continuously across the United States without stopping, a DeLorean invoking “Back to the Future” scenes.

But the real muscle the museum has exerted in recent months has been to send a message, especially to its neighbors at the Air and Space Museum: Leave us alone.

Members of the Automotive Museum’s board who wanted to explore a merger between the two institutions have resigned or been edged out. Some influential people – even one prominent collector who helped start the museum in the 1980s – say it’s a missed opportunity for such a prime location, in a region home to fantastic auto collections.

“We don’t expect every museum to be a great big museum with a worldwide following,” said County Supervisor Ron Roberts, who was the city councilman representing Balboa Park when the museum opened in 1988. “The idea of the automotive museum, I think, is a good one. I’m a little disappointed in the way this one operates.”

The whole thing highlights a question that’s existed since 1,400 acres were first set aside for the park in the 1860s, and has flared up on occasion since many of its buildings were constructed for exhibition spaces for 1915 and 1935 events. What is the best way to use the space and buildings of Balboa Park?

Here’s more of what we know and what the conflict reveals about the city’s urban park:

Some influential car guys think the Automotive Museum needs a jumpstart.

When Alan Johnson, a renowned Porsche race car driver and former dealer, joined the Automotive Museum board a few years ago, he was thrilled. He saw great potential for the museum to grow and take advantage of the dozens of collections owned by locals. But to do that, the museum would need to grow. He thought the ideas he’d heard for sharing new space with the museum’s neighbors were exciting.

But when he voted to explore the merger, he was soon asked to leave the board. He said if the museum continues down the path it’s on, it’ll stagnate.

“The car museum is like, if you’ve gone there twice you get to see all of the same stuff again,” Johnson said. “There were too many people on the board who didn’t want anybody to make a difference.”

Bill Evans, a hotelier and car aficionado with his own car collection, was the founding vice president of the museum in 1988. Evans echoed Johnson’s assessment.

“It’s basically a large empty building with a lot of cars that are placed unimaginatively,” he said. “There’s no narrative that goes on. There are some special shows every once in a while. But it seems like it’s more a place where people are parking their cars and there’s no rhyme or reason.”

Indeed, the museum’s staff and remaining board members have some perception hurdles to clear. The building is old. The floor is scuffed, the main exhibition space small. Despite recent theater-style lighting and black paint on the walls to direct your vision, it’s hard to get past the high-school-gym-filled-with-cars feeling, as some visitors have pointed out in online reviews. Museum leaders contend they’d do all sorts of things to make it better – with some big donations.

But Roberts, who thought the merger should be explored, said the board’s attitude limits the museum’s growth just as much as its physical size.

“There are so many people who are into cars!” he said. “Almost all of them at one time or another have been alienated from the way this thing’s been run.”

The Air and Space Museum wants to expand. It thought this was its chance.

Leaders at the Air and Space Museum, occupying a building built by Ford Motor Company for the 1935 Exposition, talked for a couple of years with some interested and passionate board members at the Automotive Museum next door to flesh out ideas about how the two museums could merge.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

The museum has sunk north of $30,000 into plans with architect David Marshall, who’s worked on other buildings and restoration projects in Balboa Park. Marshall came up with a glass corridor between the two museums as well as an addition behind the Auto Museum – something that was part of the city’s plans for that building when the museum opened in the 1980s. The Air and Space Museum would bring its 102-foot Atlas missile down from its Gillespie Field location to display in front.

They even thought about seeing whether the park’s Model Railroad Museum would move up the road – to complete the trains, planes and automobiles trifecta – but that was just an idea.

Last year, the contingent at the Auto Museum that wanted to explore the merger was eventually outnumbered. Not only that, they were edged out of the museum’s future – voted out of leadership or pressured to resign.

At this point, merger talks are over.

The Automotive Museum likes being small and independent.

The Automotive Museum tends to stay under the radar. It’s a collection of rare, vintage and sometimes weird cars with special shows that cycle through every four months. Whatever’s not on display goes in storage in the museum’s repair shop in National City.

It attracts about 100,000 visitors each year – a little less than half as many who visit the Air and Space next door. Some pay the $8.50 adult admission charge; others attend on the day each month when the museum’s permanent collection is open for free.

A merger could mean a different direction for the automobile museum, and leaders prefer to retain their own control. Executive Director Paula Brandes started there as a part-time marketing assistant nine years ago. In recent years, the museum’s small size and nimbleness has allowed it to put on oddball shows to attract new audiences – like a Steampunk theme that upped the museum’s geek quotient and a few shows of lowriders that connected with neighborhoods often unrepresented in Balboa Park.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

Retired judge Michael Harris took over the board presidency in a contentious meeting last year when the thought of exploring the merger was shut down. He took the reins from Chip Fox, an SDG&E executive. Fox soon resigned, along with four other board members.

Harris said he wanted more specifics to warrant even exploring the merger. He said the museum should preserve its own board, its own staff, its own space. He feared a takeover.

“I didn’t think it was a good thing to do,” Harris said. “The more this talk was going on, the more I was concerned that we weren’t getting the whole story.”

Brandes is planning a theatrical event for 2015, a centennial celebration in the park, with car parts used as musical instruments. She said the museum is hiring an education programmer, and looking to improve its visitor experience.

Currently, one of the museum’s “interactive” components Brandes highlighted on a recent tour is a cardboard facade that kids can pose with. It’s a far cry from the video game simulation flights a visitor can take in the Air and Space Museum next door. But Brandes said the pace suits them and their paying members, who number close to 500, she said.

“Not every coffee shop is Starbucks,” she said. “It’s OK to be smaller.”

It’s not the first time the Automotive Museum has been controversial.

The museum just signed a new 25-year lease with the city for its space, the Conference Building built for the 1935 expo in Balboa Park. When the museum opened in 1988, it displaced groups of protesting clog dancers, Ping-Pong players and badminton boosters who’d been using the building. But car proponents in that early group that included Evans touted the potential to attract big donations from car collectors to keep up the city’s asset. Its first lease stipulated that the museum build out a planned addition on its back lot within five years. It never did, and the new lease got rid of that requirement, Brandes said.

Now the biggest goals are to improve what a visitor experiences in the museum, and to tell the story of automotive history and ingenuity to kids through education programs, she said.

“We’re growing into our big-museum pants right now,” Brandes said.

Evans said the evolution of the automobile industry and the role cars play needs to be reflected in the museum.

“Where were we 30 years ago and where are we today?” he said. “We’re stuck. We’re still driving a Model-T and other people are driving Lexuses.”

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

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