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Profile Mingei founder/director Martha Longenecker finds art in culture


Founder and director, Mingei International Museum


Bachelor’s degree in art, UCLA; arts education credential and MFA, Claremont Graduate School


Oklahoma City, Okla.


La Jolla


Reading, collecting art, travel, study

Mingei Founder/Director Martha Longenecker Finds Art in Culture

o hear Martha Longenecker tell it, there’s something palpable about a person who is truly open to learning about culture or art.

“You can see it in their eyes,” she explains.

Longenecker, who founded and runs the Mingei International Museum, has lived a life nourished by that passion for understanding , whether taking it in as a student, or sharing it as an art teacher and through her work at the museum.

The Mingei, which roughly translates to “art of the people,” runs six exhibits a year of folk art, crafts and other handmade objects used in daily life.

The exhibits are different from what is often displayed at art museums, Longenecker says. “They weren’t showing what the unknown person does,” she explains.

Those who have created the pieces often did it with a different purpose, she says.

“They make them because they’re useful and they need them, but they need them in the whole sense,” she says. “They make them beautiful and whole because that’s their spirit.”

She continues, “Those things have an energy and feel that is different than just a machine-made object. They are a kind of language that we as human beings are sensitive to and can understand at the gut level.”

Examples of the various shows include the outgoing “Village India,” which featured pottery, textiles, art pieces and even kites. The incoming “Venini Glass and Design in a World Perspective” will feature the work of a Venetian factory along with other glass pieces from all over the world.

The majority of the museum’s shows are created at the Mingei, and many later travel to other institutions.

Art, Business Blend

As the museum’s director, Longenecker is both artist and businesswoman. She oversees the exhibits, from selection to actual set-up, balances the museum’s $2 million annual budget, and takes a large role in raising the money to do the various projects.

On a financial level, Longenecker balances the museum’s own exhibits, including the ones that raise money by being rented by other museums, with ones that the museum pays to bring in from other organizations.

Rental costs can be as low as $6,000 or as high as $100,000 or more. The cost of exhibits goes beyond rental fees, with extensive expenses in shipping, insurance and installation, depending on the fragility of the pieces, she said.

For instance, a pre-Columbian show that featured many gold pieces had a $35,000 rental fee, plus considerable shipping costs and curatorial expenses.

The least expensive shows are those created with the museum’s own collection, she noted.

The shows are created with a couple of goals in mind, Longenecker says. First, they must have enough quality pieces. Second, they must present something that people want to see and to which they haven’t had access. Third, there must be expert curators, and, finally, there must be enough funding.

What distinguishes Longenecker from others is her ability to move in all social strata, says Longenecker’s good friend, folklorist Sam Hinton.

“Her interests are in folk arts, which throws her into people with less education and so forth. Her fund-raising ability with the museum has thrown her into the top echelons of high society,” Hinton says. “She’s done very well in both places.”

What enables Longenecker to do that is an ability to appreciate each person for his or her qualities, rather than putting people in categories, she says.

“I think she also has a tremendous innate quality of art,” Hinton says. “She has very good taste and is able to carry it out in her own things. Often, people have taste but they can’t do it, or sometimes they can do it but they don’t have much taste. But she’s got both.”

Inquisitive Nature

Longenecker embodies the kind of person she likes talking to. As she discusses her museum’s mission, how and why she founded it and the path that led her there, her own eyes reflect her genuine curiosity.

It’s a compelling quality that has brought her many opportunities and mentors.

As a teen-ager and a college student growing up in Southern California, she first studied painting. Watercolor was her focus.

A ceramics class in her last year at UCLA ignited Longenecker’s passions for pottery, which would eventually overshadow her painting studies.

Decades later, her enthusiasm for pottery still runs strong.

Along with being a three-dimensional and tactile media, there were many other appeals, she said.

“You’re working with fire, and water, and you’re working with inorganic elements of the earth copper and iron and cobalt and manganese,” she says. “You’re fusing these into glasslike glazes on the surface of clay. You see these black iron magnetic shavings from the earth change and it’s quite magical.”

While at Scripps College in Claremont, she gradually changed her focus to pottery.

As a young but gifted potter, she mingled with renowned artists from Japan such as Shoji Hamada and Tatsuzo Shimaoka and others from the United States, such as her first ceramics teacher, Laura Andreson, and through them met others.

Hamada invited her to visit Japan, and she wanted to go. Having married in college, though, and having become a mother as well, she couldn’t do it at the time. Instead, she continued her pottery and teaching work.

But she kept in touch with her mentors and when SDSU offered her a position in its art department and asked her to develop a pottery program, she envisioned one opportunity in particular: a sabbatical after several years.

“Very mercenary,” she notes, a good-natured glint in her eye, ” but that’s exactly how I saw it.”

Seven years later, at age 42, Longenecker was on her way to visit Hamada. Friends suggested, however, that she not fly directly there or she’d be in culture shock. She bought an open ticket and traveled from west to east, studying art in England, Italy, France and India, among other places, en route to Japan.

Never having been outside the United States before, Longenecker found the experience enlightening.

“It completely changed my view of what the world was,” she says.

During her trip and subsequent ones, she met more people in the international art world who have since become good friends.

Among them was art historian and aesthetician Dr. Soetsu Yanagi, who coined the term “Mingei.” Fearing the industrial revolution would destroy the traditions of handmade objects, Yanagi created the Mingei Association.

Network Of Ideas

Throughout those trips, and ensuing travels and meetings, Longenecker has created a network of associations with artists and art connoisseurs. They often give her ideas about what direction to go in for the Mingei’s future exhibitions.

In 1974, with seed money from her late husband, Longenecker incorporated Mingei International as a nonprofit public foundation that would fund artists’ visits to San Diego.

She used the word “international” to show the global reach, and used the word “Mingei” to reveal the inspiration.

A few years later, when the University Towne Centre mall was being built, and the city asked the developer to have one space allotted for a nonprofit group, Longenecker was encouraged to open a Mingei museum site.

Although already busy with teaching at the SDSU program, and the project’s hefty $100,000 fund-raising requirements seemingly insurmountable, the offer was too compelling to pass on.

“The only failure would have been not to try,” she says.

With the help of her friend Judith Munk, Longenecker contacted possible donors, and soon had money to develop the site.

The museum opened in 1978. As the 20-year lease came up, the Mingei moved in 1996 to the restored 41,000-square-foot Plaza de Panama building in Balboa Park, after an $8 million capital campaign.

Once staffed by volunteers, paid employees now number 29. The museum currently has more than 12,000 art objects in its own collection.

Longenecker continued teaching part-time at SDSU until 1990. Since then, she’s been full-time at the Mingei. Longenecker, a La Jolla resident, says she has never taken much of a salary.

For her, it’s been a passion. With pride, she said the museum has never been in debt.

In the last few months, she’s taken on a new challenge: creating a satellite exhibit site in Escondido. It could be the first of many.

Longenecker was hesitant to discuss the project’s cost.

“Figures stop people,” she says. “Their minds just kind of anchor on money.”

Tracing the Mingei’s future, and Longenecker’s, is much like tracing a path on a globe. Among future lands to be featured are Greece, Africa and a largely untouched area of southwestern China.

Much like her pottery, the museum has been Longenecker’s unique handiwork.

When she discusses a pottery class’ progress, it compares to the evolution in her founding and developing the Mingei.

“Well, in the beginning, it’s just crude everyone’s struggling so. But after they begin to get some facility, then the person’s work looks like them. It always looks like them. They can’t do anything else.

“Anybody in the class will know who did what. That’s what’s so exciting about art.”

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