Inspire, Educate, Cultivate

The San Diego Museum of Art’s mission is to inspire, educate, and cultivate curiosity through great works of art.

The Beginning

The original inspiration for a permanent public art gallery in San Diego can be traced to the Panama-California International Exposition, held in Balboa Park during 1915–1916. The Exposition, which was organized to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal and to promote San Diego as a seaport, also showcased San Diego as a growing cultural center. Among its numerous displays representing various industries and products was a prominent exhibition of fine arts featuring European old masters, American art, and works by California and San Diego artists. The public response to the art exhibition convinced civic leaders and prominent local artists that San Diego needed its own fine arts gallery and collection.

Planning for the new museum began in 1922 when local business and civic leader, Appleton S. Bridges (1849–1929), offered to fund the construction of a permanent structure to house a municipal art collection. A prominent site on the north side of Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama was secured and construction got underway in April 1924. The Fine Arts Society subsequently formed in 1925 from the merger of the San Diego Art Guild and the Friends of Art to operate the new museum.

Bridges hired one of San Diego’s leading architects at the time, William Templeton Johnson (1877–1950), to design and construct the new art gallery. The Spanish Colonial–style architecture from the 1915 Exposition suggested the style for Johnson’s design. Johnson and his associate, Robert W. Snyder (1874–1955), however, went one step further and looked directly to sixteenth-century Spanish Renaissance models in the plateresque style for inspiration. For the building’s exterior, they borrowed motifs from the Cathedral of Valladolid, Spain, and the façade of the University of Salamanca, Spain, while for the interior they adapted features of the Hospital de la Santa Cruz in Toledo, Spain.

Architectural sculptor Chris Mueller, who had supervised the architectural details of the 1915 Exposition buildings, enhanced the façade with the addition of sculptural elements including life-sized sculptures of Spanish Old Master painters Velázquez, Murillo, and Zurbarán as well as heraldic devices and the coats-of-arms of Spain, the United States, California, and San Diego.

As construction was nearing completion in the spring of 1925, Bridges asked Johnson to help find someone to run the new gallery. At the recommendation of Archer M. Huntington, founder of the Hispanic Society of America, Dr. Reginald Poland (1893–1975), then director of education at the Detroit Institute of the Arts, was hired as the Museum’s first director.

Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego

The Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego officially opened its doors on February 28, 1926, at which time ownership and maintenance of the building was transferred to the City of San Diego. Under Poland’s direction, which lasted from 1925 until 1950, the core of the Museum’s early collection was formed thanks to the generous donations of Bridges, Archer M. Huntington, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Timken, the Spreckels family, Alice Klauber, Mr. and Mrs. George D. Pratt, Mrs. Henry A. Everett, and Amy and Anne Putnam. During his tenure, Poland also instituted programs to foster appreciation of the arts for both children and adults through free artistic demonstrations by local artists and a series of free Sunday lectures given by critics, historians, and artists.

Poland also saw the Museum through the critical period of World War II. Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Museum sent many of its most important artworks to other art museums in the Midwest for safekeeping. Despite the war, the Museum maintained a busy schedule of exhibitions, classes, and lectures until early in 1943 when the Museum was requisitioned for military use along with the other cultural facilities in Balboa Park. The United States Navy converted the Museum into a hospital housing 423 beds, X-ray facilities, and a surgical suite. Suddenly homeless, the Museum was fortunate to find temporary quarters in a mansion generously donated by trustees Frank and May Marcy. Located on Sunset Boulevard in Mission Hills, this large residence was converted into a gallery that housed exhibitions, classes, films, lectures, and other art activities until 1947 when the Navy relinquished control of the gallery in Balboa Park and the Fine Arts Society was able to resume normal operations.

West Wing Expansion

The Museum underwent an important period of expansion, in terms of both its collections and gallery space, under directors Warren Beach, who served as director from 1955 until 1969, and Henry Gardiner, who served as director from 1969 until 1979. The completion in 1966 of the west wing doubled the space of Bridges’ original structure, and coincided with the receipt of major donations of works of art by Mr. and Mrs. Norton Walbridge, Earle W. Grant, and Pliny F. Munger in the late 1960s and 1970s. In addition to augmenting an already significant collection of old masters, these gifts rounded out the Museum’s holdings in nineteenth- and twentieth-century European art, American art, and large-scale sculpture, which filled the newly built May S. Marcy Sculpture Court. Additional gallery space was added with the completion of the Gildred-Parker-Grant (east) wing in 1974.

In 1978, Trustees changed the name of the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego to The San Diego Museum of Art in recognition of the Museum’s status as a repository for applied and decorative arts in addition to the fine arts of painting and sculpture. During the following two decades, under the directorship of Steven Brezzo, who was museum director from 1979 to 1999, the Museum became the beneficiary of three remarkable donations of art: a collection of English and French works of art from Ambassador Maxwell Gluck and his wife in 1985; a collection of prints, posters, and paintings by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec given by the Baldwin M. Baldwin Foundation in 1988; and the 1,453-piece collection of Indian and South Asian art given by Edwin Binney 3rd in 1990.

Entering the new century under the directorship of Dr. Don Bacigalupi, who served from 1999 until 2003, the Museum expanded and improved. In 2000, the Museum Art School moved into new facilities—including studio, classroom, and offices—in the rebuilt House of Hospitality. While celebrating its 75th anniversary in early 2001, the Museum unveiled the fruits of extensive conservation work that brought the Museum’s John M. and Sally B. Thornton Rotunda back to the original brilliance of its debut in 1926. And visitor-friendly renovations were completed in The Museum Store, galleries, May S. Marcy Sculpture Garden, and James S. Copley Auditorium.

Dr. Derrick Cartwright, Museum director from 2004 until 2009, oversaw further improvements in the physical plant and programs of the Museum, including expansion of the Museum’s outreach efforts into the community, its bilingual initiatives, and publications program. In 2008 the long-awaited restoration of the building’s façade was finally completed, through generous support by the State of California and the City of San Diego. The following year, a significant collection of African, Oceanic, and Native American artworks was transferred to the Museum from the Sana Art Foundation, along with more than a thousand books, periodicals, and catalogs.


In 2010 Roxana Velásquez Martinez del Campo assumed leadership of the Museum as its eighth executive director. Bringing a wealth of expertise and an international reputation earned as director of three major national museums in Mexico City, Velásquez has embarked on an ambitious program of building on the Museum’s traditional strengths to reach new levels of distinction in regional, national, and international spheres. Since her appointment, many high-level acquisitions have significantly increased the Museum’s art collection holdings. A notable milestone was accomplished in February 2016 with the installation of seven large-scale sculptures in the Plaza de Panama. Under the “Free the Art” campaign, these sculptures from the Museum’s permanent collection are on public display as Art of the Open Air, granting greater public prominence to the Museum and its collection.

Read more about accomplishments at the Museum from the past 10 years: See the Decade in Review.