San Diego Business Journal

A $55 million transformation of the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park will bring back elements of the historic building’s past while presenting a whole new wide-open look that invites people to step inside and explore its exhibits.

The new Mingei will be unveiled this summer with a grand opening planned for the fall.

The renovation will be “moving the museum forward professionally in a lot of ways, and more importantly, opening us up in more exciting ways to our public,” said Mingei Museum CEO Rob Sidner.

Among the more dramatic changes is the addition of a new theater on the lower level that opens into a terraced courtyard that forms a kind of amphitheater and a bistro with a 2,000 square-foot courtyard of its own above the theater.

“For the first time, we’ll have a full-service restaurant or bistro in the building – small, but just the right size for Balboa Park, which badly needs more food and beverage sites,” Sidner said.

The 120-seat theater has a retractable glass wall that is 40-feet wide at one end.

The theater replaced a loading dock that led to the basement. The loading dock was rarely used because large trucks couldn’t fit down it.

For indoor performances, the wall will be covered by a curtain made by Petra Blaisse, founder of Inside Out studio in The Netherlands. The design of the curtain was inspired by the shape and coloration of the jacaranda tree.

Sidner said the theater will be open for use on community Mondays 30 to 35 weeks a year free to nonprofits and community groups who want to use it for performances and other activities.

Adding to the wide-open feel of the museum, six blind arches with blank walls have been opened up with glass doors that are 12 feet tall and 10 feet wide on the Prado entrance to the museum.

A restored Nikigator alligator sculpture and play structure by the late San Diego artist Niki de Saint Phalle will greet visitors at the front entrance and a second sculpture by her, The Poet and His Muse, will be at the west entrance in Alcazar Garden.

All of this sprung from an evaluation of the museum lead by architect Jennifer Luce, founder and principal of LUCE et studio.

A Special Experience

Luce was selected as the architect in May 2015 and the renovation work began in December 2018 after she spent the intervening period getting a feel for what people wanted from the museum and a sense of the building’s past and its potential.

The general contractor is Layton Construction based in Utah. Gardiner & Theobald based in London is the construction manager.

Designing the museum’s transformation was “a pretty special experience,” Luce said.

“If you say the word Mingei, people smile. There’s an affectionate connection to the community,” Luce said, adding that said she wanted to reflect that in redesigning the space.

Luce said she “took a holistic step back to look at how they evolved over 40 years and how perhaps the space could do them more justice in the way they share experience with their visitors.”

“At first, the building seemed very insular and sequestered with very few openings. For some museums, that’s fine. For Mingei, they wanted to open themselves up,” Luce said.

It soon became apparent from Luce’s evaluation that the museum needed far more than patchwork repairs to reach its potential.

“We knew there were a number of things we needed to do for the building,” Sidner said.

But the patchwork would only uncover more that needed to be redone.

“Once you touch one thing, you end up having to replace another,” Luce said. “Replace the floor, you have to replace the wall, replace the lighting, you need to replace the ceiling. It could end up costing you more money because something could have been missed or forgotten.”

History

The Mingei moved into the Spanish Colonial House of Charm building in 1996.

Like many other structures in Balboa Park, the original building that houses the Mingei was built in 1915 as part of the Panama-California Exposition and rebuilt in the 1990s, Sidner said.

The Mingei shares the building with the San Diego Art Institute, which uses about 7,000 square feet, and the Old Globe Theater, which has rehearsal space in the basement, Sidner said.

Harkening back to the building’s origins, outdoor terraces that hadn’t been used since the 1915 exposition have been fixed up and furnished.

The historic bell tower that sat unused has become a stairway leading to the upstairs gallery with a glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly suspended over the staircase.

Artistic elements have been incorporated through the museum as part of the renovation, even the floors, made of hand-carved wooden planks from the Black Forest of Germany.

Tickle Your Fancy

A 35-seat classroom also has been added to the museum as a home base for free to students from elementary school through high school, for workshops and other activities.

About half of the downstairs plaza level with a sampling of the museum’s exhibits will be open free to the public.

“We’re hoping we will tickle people’s fancy enough that they will want to come upstairs and see the fully curated exhibition,” Sidner said.

New staff offices were built on the lower level.

“We’ve been separated throughout the building for the last 26 years. Now we’re going to be cohesively together,” Sidner said.

About 1,500 square feet of space in the basement that had been used for storage had been changed into “a well-appointed, well-planned workshop for the museum,” Sidner said.

With the opening just months away, the Mingei is still actively raising money to pay for the renovation.

Through mid-March, the museum had raised almost $41 million.

“We are actively seeking good donors of all kinds,” Sidner said. “There’s always a lot of enthusiasm in San Diego when a project comes close to being finished. We hope that holds true for us as well. There are many naming opportunities from individual chairs that will be out theater seats way up to naming galleries.”