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Gaidi Finnie’s vision was to reestablish the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Arts. He knew the initial exhibit had to make a big splash, which explains why he chose to feature the thought-provoking photos from the Civil Rights Movement. The museum sits on the campus of a church in Encanto. While the facility is spacious, it lacks the high-tech climate control system and extensive security required when displaying original works of art.
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Finnie, the museum’s executive director, drew upon the ingenuity he’s polished as an arts maven with national and international reach to overcome the challenges of the facility. He contacted the nation’s only African-American Lifestyle magazines Ebony and Jet and convinced them to allow SDAAMFA to display copies of their iconic photos. Once the magazines publishers agreed, he complemented the images with photos from the Associated Press. In some cases, the outlets enhanced and reprinted the photos to support the exhibit.
It was worth all the effort. The 2014 “In Our Lifetime” exhibit of some 40 photographs was standing room only, and teenage docents stood in front of each image ready to explain its story. As museum patrons stopped to view the photos, they contributed tales from their own lives. The result: A bond across the generations.
“It was circular,” Finnie said. “As the young people talked about the Civil Rights Movement, the older people talked about their experiences. The kids were teaching the older people, and the older people were teaching the younger people.”
For Finnie, it marked the rebirth of the museum originally started by the late Shirley Day-Williams. The “museum without walls” slowly halted after her death in 1996. The museum’s new home is at Bayview Baptist Church, where Finnie serves as chief operating officer.
“It feels like the presence of African-Americans and their contributions are diminishing in Southern California, and a lot of this stuff is going by the wayside. Somebody has to take this torch and show this art,” he says. “Ultimately, you’ll have the opportunity to see the best of African-American art from around the world and be educated about it now and in the future.”
Finnie, who runs the museum as a volunteer, has the background to bring his vision to life. He has served as the managing director of the North Coast Repertory Theatre; the assistant director and interim director of the Museum of Photographic Arts; and as a member of the San Diego Port Authority’s Art Committee.
As he builds the museum, he’s especially dedicated to bringing art to the young people of San Diego.
“You want to have the art, but you also want to bring the youth with you so they can see artwork that had previously only been available through a book or a picture,” he says. “We’re providing that sort of access.”
After the breakthrough civil rights photography exhibit last year, the museum moved on to “Question Bridge: Black Males,” a video exhibit about being a black male in the U.S. and a recant collaboration with the Mingei International Museum’s “Black Dolls” exhibit.
Finnie said Summer 2015 will be the biggest undertaking to date. The show will feature the work of Gullah field workers – descendants of African slave workers in the coastal regions of the South – through artist Jonathan Green’s collection of paintings and sculptures.
Finnie hopes to bring about 20 docents (ages 12-18) on board in time to serve during Green’s exhibit.
“We will be focusing on the African-American experience in the fine arts,” he says. “We’ll teach them the whole museum business as well as the importance of the art, and let them have time with the artists. We’ll also bring lectures to them and take them on trips, allowing them to really see the art and develop an appreciation for it.”
This exciting program encourages all youth to apply. The program is supported by donations which allows the experience to be provided free of cost to the youth.
“They’ll become some of the most knowledgeable people in the United States about African-American culture and art,” Finnie said. “The docent program is a way to promote excellence and make a difference by supporting the next generation.”
New exhibit opens in August 2015
Learn more about Bayview Charities’s sponsor, SDG&E.