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Parting Gift

By Kayleigh Donahue Hodes

Photography by Jenny Siegwart

11.29.17

Hugh M. Davies, director emeritus of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, set one final, grand project into motion before his retirement.

OVER THE LAST 34 years, it’s safe to say nearly every facet of San Diego has seen some kind of change—and profoundly in our arts scene. Hugh M. Davies got to watch it from the driver’s seat, playing an active role in its evolution since he first took his post as director and CEO of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Back then, the museum had a good collection and a reputation for strong exhibitions, he recalls. “But during my tenure, Tijuana became a significant regional art center, and the museum has played the major role in introducing San Diego and Tijuana to the best in contemporary art regionally, nationally and internationally,” he says. “We have pioneered an emphasis on Mexican and Latin American art and we have nurtured many new collectors as well.”

Last year, he decided it was finally time to close this chapter of his life and retire (he’ll be 70 this February), but there was one last major project he wanted to set firmly into motion before leaving: a massive expansion project at the La Jolla location that will result in 30,000 square feet of additional exhibition space. “I’ve wanted to add more gallery space since I arrived in 1983—it was my first recommendation to the board of trustees,” he says. “We hold a world-class collection that has only rarely seen the light of day—modern masterpieces by Warhol, Christo, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Ed Ruscha and so many others that are the envy of other museums and should be on view all the time.” The museum tapped Selldorf Architects (whose projects include the transformation of the 1914 Carrère & Hastings building in New York into the Neue Galerie New York) to develop the new space, which Davies anticipates will open in 2020.

Even though he’s happy to hand over the reins to his hand-picked successor, Kathryn Kanjo, and take on the honorary title of director emeritus, Davies shows no sign of slowing down. “I’ve promised my wife that I won’t take on any commitments in my first year of retirement, but I’m sure I’ll eventually find ways to be helpful through advising, teaching and volunteering,” he says, adding he does plan on filling his newfound free time by continuing to research and write about Francis Bacon (he’s one of the foremost experts on the artist) and picking up the guitar again after many years. A few other things on his wish list for the future? “I would love to see more affordable, dedicated studio space to attract, retain and support our artists and more opportunities for artists to exhibit in nonprofit spaces—a San Diego municipal art gallery would be an important addition so regional artists have the opportunity to share their work with the public,” he says. Perhaps retirement can wait.