On the morning of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Timken Museum of Art officials found themselves in a scramble.

The Raphael painting “Madonna of the Pinks” was bound to cross the Atlantic for an exhibition in San Diego just a few weeks away. First, the Balboa Park museum needed to finalize terrorism and earthquake insurance that would satisfy the most exacting standards of the National Gallery in London, where the painting usually lives.

The Timken’s chief operating officer, Anita Crider, breathed a sigh of relief later that day. They’d met the holiday deadline.

“Art insurance is totally different than any other kind of insurance,” she said. It was her first time arranging such a thing; her background is in investment banking.

The museum’s former director, John Wilson, set up the exchange. The Timken is lending out its prized possession, a Rembrandt painting called “St. Bartholemew,” in exchange for the Raphael, a Vermeer masterpiece, later in 2015 and a Turner painting in 2016.

They are extraordinary artworks, the kind that draw crowds. Timken officials hope the Raphael exhibit, which opened Dec. 19, proves a good launch to their 50th anniversary year, which coincides with Balboa Park centennial celebrations.

Photo by Dustin Michelson
Photo by Dustin Michelson

The learning curve on matters like art insurance comes as the Timken board decided not to renew museum director and curator John Wilson’s contract this summer. The board elected instead to hire a visiting director, art conservator David Bull, to stop in a few times in 2015 and invoke some of his connections for some lectures and anniversary events.

That means the burden for running the museum day-to-day falls to Crider her fellow employees and the board. Tim Zinn, a retired digital health care businessman, chairs the Timken’s board. Crider sat on the board previously but stepped down to join the staff.

The leadership shakeup surprised San Diego and the national cultural community.

As it heads into its 50th year, the Timken is facing big decisions about how it will look inside and out. There’s its leadership structure – will it bring in a permanent curator? And then there’s the building itself, a sometimes divisive modern shape amid the rest of Balboa Park’s ornate architecture. Will the museum get an internal or external makeover – or both?

Crider said her job boils down to one conversation. “People say either, ‘Oh, I’ve heard of that,’ or ‘Well, where is that?’” she said.

This, of a museum that is free to enter right in the middle of Balboa Park.

“While we’re not the art that everybody loves, we are important art,” she said. “People should be interested that there is a Rembrandt in San Diego.”

Under Zinn’s watch, the museum will become the “center of art, energy and fun” in Balboa Park, he said. “We’re becoming a totally different, more visual, spreading-our-wings organization than has been the case in the past.”

A Gem of a Collection

The Raphael and Vermeer exhibits “are two huge high points for the Timken” heading into 2015, said Bull, the visiting director. “There’s terrific incentive and interest there.”

Photo by Dustin Michelson
Photo by Dustin Michelson

Bull hopes that a third painting loan, a prestigious Turner work, will spread some of that interest over into 2016.

Bull has had a long, fond relationship with the Timken, stretching back to the 1970s. After Wilson’s departure, Zinn asked Bull to help the museum navigate its anniversary year from the art side, while Crider would handle operations.

The museum is an anomaly in San Diego. It started with a $2 million art collection belonging to the Putnam sisters, relatives of a wealthy inventor. They partnered with ball-bearing magnates the Timkens, who chipped in $1 million for the cutting-edge building.

The foundation stipulates free admission to the museum.

This is important for understanding the Timken. Unlike organizations like the opera, or other museums, the Timken’s bread-and-butter expenses are paid for by the endowment, not by entrance fees.

It’s the extras – additional programs, building spruce-ups – that can cause disagreements. The leadership has to prioritize which ones to pursue, and how to raise the money for them.

Their ends may be debated, but the Timken’s means in recent years tell a story of relative strength. Fundraising rose in recent years, with grants and donations in the museum’s 2012 fiscal year coming in at more than $1 million – a sizable proportion of the museum’s annual budget, usually around $2 million.

In the current fiscal year, the museum expects to receive two “large bequests from long-term donors,” on top of more grants and donations, Crider said.

And the museum brought a record number of people — more than 200,000 — through the doors over the past year. It is “on track to beat” that record this year, Crider said.

Zinn said the museum is “very proud” of its positive cash flow but cautioned against drawing conclusions based on financial reports.

“There’s more to that,” he said. “There’s no trends that are always set in stone; there are ups and downs and all-arounds”

How the museum’s new outreach focus looks different from the Timken under Wilson – who hosted popular “Art of Fashion” events and curated an exhibit of video portraits – remains to be seen.

“It may be the next step in the trajectory,” Crider said.

Bull said the museum should focus on sparking interest in the Raphael and the Vermeer.

“[The Timken’s] future is to continue doing what it’s doing now,” he said. “I don’t think that there should be major changes made. There’s no need.”

A ‘Rock Star’ Visits the Museum

Zinn declined to talk about the decision to let Wilson go.

He said where curators and intellectuals once ruled the museum world, what’s important now is a savvy business and marketing leadership.

“It used to be the curators were the end-all, be-all, see-all, do-all, because they had the intellectual piece that keep people coming to the museum,” Zinn said. “But it’s required a different mindset – balancing the intellectual piece. We’re looking at things from a business perspective.”

One tension between those two worlds came earlier this fall when marketing materials for a cocktail party called Bull a “rock star.” The snazzy description sparked some snickering on national art blogs.

“That was none of my doing,” Bull said. “I won’t go further on that one.”

“[The museum] obviously wanted to build up excitement, which was a very nice thing to do, and to reassure the community the museum was going ahead and going ahead wonderfully,” Bull said.

It’s unclear what leadership model the Timken will assume after 2015: a return to an in-house curator or director, like the model with Wilson, or back to its visiting director model like with Bull, and like much of museum history.

Bull said his involvement is “only until the end of their 50th anniversary.”

“I hope that during this time they will look for a new director or a new curator,” he said.

Wilson, the former director, urged San Diegans to visit the Timken to see the Raphael, the Vermeer and the Turner. This fall, he’s been working on some academic projects and is talking with some other U.S. museums looking for directors.

He said a “difference of opinions” is to be expected with a group of people making decisions.

“I wish the Timken all the best,” he said. “The board is ultimately the governing body and they made a conscious decision of the direction they want to move forward. I totally respect that.”

‘A Great Failing for San Diego’

There’s one more tension as the Timken turns 50. Its structure remains an anomaly, too. In a park full of buildings mostly built for 1915 or 1935, the 1965 Timken ranks among the most important examples of mid-century architecture in San Diego, behind perhaps just the Salk Institute.

Two 1915 buildings that were falling apart and never meant to be permanent were replaced in order to build the Timken and the west wing of the San Diego Museum of Art, to great outcry.

Even during that controversy, proponents saw a chance to infuse the park with an architectural gem.

“To me, it’s a calm, cool, zen oasis in the park. A great counterpoint to the heavy colonial, conquistador-informed Spanish buildings,” said Jason Lane, a senior partner at Bells and Whistles, the award-winning San Diego design firm behind the Starlite, the Smoking Goat and UCSD’s The Loft. “Remodeling either [the Timken or the SDMA wing] would be a great failing for San Diego.”

But a group started soon after the construction of the Timken and a modern wing on the San Diego Museum of Art to fight for preserving the 1915-era buildings. That group, the Committee of One Hundred, is one of the most influential groups in the park.

And another influential group, the Save Our Heritage Organisation, has its eye on the Timken, too.

Their suggestions may be a tougher sell as the building enters a new phase of historic recognition by turning 50.

SOHO’s Bruce Coons has suggested reconstructing an original 1915 building around the existing Timken, leaving the existing architecture inside, like the Egyptian temple at the Met.

The Committee of One Hundred’s Mike Kelly said the modern Timken building is out of place on the Plaza de Panama. The group has mentioned to Timken leaders its desire that the Home Economy Building could be rebuilt when the Timken “is ready for a larger and state-of-the-art building.” The Timken’s art collection could be hung inside the reconstructed building, Kelly said.

Zinn said he’d listen to the groups’ ideas, as a good neighbor. But the building’s stark look is important to the leadership.

“This is part of our heritage, one of the things that makes us different,” Zinn said. “We get a lot of credit for our uniqueness and we revel in that.”

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

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