Guide to San Diego’s Best Contemporary Art Galleries

San Diego, California, USA
San Diego, California, USA | Photo by Felix Wöstmann on Unsplash
Graziano Scaldaferri

Urban and unconventional art styles are a staunch favourite in San Diego, California, like in much of the West Coast area. Excellent examples of contemporary art can also be found in various venues across the city, produced by passionate and talented artists from the region and beyond. Our guide looks at ten of the best contemporary art galleries and spaces in San Diego.

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Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

At the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, visitors can see over 4,000 works of contemporary art produced between 1950 and the present day. Split over two venues – one in a historical building in downtown San Diego, the other in the coastal neighbourhood of La Jolla – the MCASD offers a dynamic programme of both solo and collective exhibitions which present artists working across all media: painting, sculpture, photography and video among others. The works on show are often commissioned specifically for the exhibition (and later acquired as part of the museum’s collection), thus positioning MCASD as a fully fledged promoter of the arts. Among the strongest highlights of the permanent collection are minimalist and pop art works from the 1960 and 70s, and displays of regional art from Latin America and California.

Space 4 Art

Those who want to feel the pulse of San Diego’s local contemporary art scene should put Space 4 Art on their map. Located in the city’s East Village, Space 4 Art is a group of three former warehouses, which are now home to 32 artist studios and five live/work studios for artist residencies. These spaces are provided to local young artists in an effort to support their voices and talents with the necessary resources to express their art. A two-room gallery sits alongside a theatre for performance-based shows, and both open up to the public when works are on display. Much more than simply a gallery, Space 4 Art is among San Diego’s most vibrant art communities, with a keen eye on the latest trends and artistic developments in the region.

Murals of La Jolla

Murals of La Jolla is an initiative undertaken in 2010 in La Jolla, a seaside community in San Diego with a fabulous view over the ocean. The project’s Art Advisory Committee, composed of the heads of the major visual arts organisations in La Jolla, periodically commissions artists to cover the walls of privately held buildings in the neighbourhood with murals printed on vinyl and installed on billboard-like structures. The result is an en plein air art venue and an invasion of witty, colourful, large-scale art brought to San Diego’s streets. The praiseworthy project offers the entire local community a free display of museum quality art; to date, new works by Catherine Opie, Nina Katchadourian, Julian Opie, among others, have been installed throughout La Jolla. Murals of Jolla is an initiative of the La Jolla Community Foundation.

Timken Museum of Art

Considered one of the world’s ‘great small’ museums, the Timken Museum of Art hosts a permanent display of Anne and Amy Putnam’s collection. The two sisters, who had an undying love for fine arts, put together quite a selection of European and American paintings in the early 20th century. The museum’s holdings include works from the Italian Renaissance, by American painters active throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, a unique collection of Russian icons and beautiful French tapestries. Located in Balboa Park, a fantastic cultural space with gardens, museums, theatres and the renowned San Diego Zoo, the Timken Museum is housed in a work of art unto itself: one of California’s finest buildings, designed by Frank Hope Jr. according to the principles of American modernist architecture.

Mingei International

Mingei International is unlike any other museum or art gallery in San Diego and, probably, the whole world. Uninterested in displaying historical artworks by the masters, Mingei’s mission is rather to celebrate the art of the people (in Japanese, mingei means ‘everybody’s art’) from any culture, and made at any point in history. At the museum, visitors will be able to view more than 26,000 artefacts produced by non-artists. But this is not to say that the art on display doesn’t deserve to be seen. Paintings, sculptures, and objects of daily use such as hats, chairs and dolls all make for an enjoyable visit that will open many eyes to the realisation that even the most ordinary item, with the help of a little creativity, can become a thing of beauty.

Thumbprint Gallery

Thumbprint Gallery is a unique space in San Diego, as it features all forms of lowbrow art, including street art, graffiti, murals and illustrations, all of which are proudly celebrated. The gallery was founded in 2009 in La Jolla, and presents a programme of month-long exhibitions; moreover, each month, their art is brought to downtown San Diego for a night show at Bar Basic. Recent exhibitions include Red White Blue, a display of paintings with a dense and controversial political meaning, for which artist Saratoga Sake only used the colours of the American flag; and Monstro and the Kelp Kids, a series of drawings of childish characters by Michael ‘Monstrinho’ Amorillo.

Museum of Photographic Arts

When it first opened in 1983, San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts was one of the first venues on American soil to exclusively exhibit photographic images and lens-based art. Over the years, the museum has maintained and increased its prestige in the promotion of photography; today, MOPA remains among the top photography institutions in America, and is certainly the go-to destination for photography in San Diego. The museum’s collection amounts to 7,000 photographs by 850 different photographers. These include celebrated giants such as Alfred Stieglitz, the man who guided photography in its transition to the modern era, and Margaret Bourke-White, the first photojournalist ever to be granted entry into the USSR in 1930, and the author of the cover image that appeared on the first issue of Life.

White Box Contemporary

In 2011, artist and international art dealer Alexander Salazar opened White Box Contemporary, a gallery devoted to showcasing a selected group of artists and exhibitions that propel and question current trends in contemporary art. The gallery’s roster is not huge, but it includes a number of exciting new talents. One of them is Andrew Salgado, recently named ‘one of 12 to invest in today’ by the renowned London-based Saatchi Gallery, and who gained quite some attention with his amazing, large-scale, figurative portraits; and Joshua Dildine, mostly known for his intriguing series of photographs covered with colourful brushstrokes.

Lux Art Institute

How is a piece of art born? What is the process behind its creation? San Diego’s Lux Art Institute offers answers to these questions in a very interesting way. Different from most museums and galleries, which usually exhibit finished artworks, the Lux Art Institute takes a step back: artists are hosted at the institute for a residency period, and invited to share their creative process directly with their audience. Visitors at Lux actually see artists at work, thus gaining insight into the behind-the-scenes of visual arts – a simple yet revelatory concept. Of course, once finished, the artworks created become part of the institute’s collection and remain available to the enjoyment of the public. Worthy of note is also Lux Art Institute’s beautiful venue, a modernist building in the coastal neighbourhood of Encinitas, immersed in nature and overlooking the San Elijo Lagoon.

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