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MoPA founding director Arthur Ollman to retire

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In just 23 years, San Diego's Museum of Photographic Arts went from one man's dream to a world-class institution. Now museum founder Arthur Ollman is leaving. Pat Finn reports on his legacy and the search for a successor.

San Diego's Museum of Photographic Arts is about to bump headlong into a life-changing, institution-altering milestone. MoPA is going to lose its Director. Arthur Ollman is not only MoPA's Director, he is its founding Director. He has guided the museum for its entire 23 years, taking it from an empty building in Balboa Park to the elegant space we see today. It is no exaggeration to say the museum, its collection and its director are known and respected worldwide. With Arthur Ollman's departure, things will change at this San Diego landmark, although no one knows in what way.

Murray Galinson, SD MoPA Board Member: "I first heard Arthur was leaving about the first part of October. I was greatly disappointed because I think Arthur has been an outstanding director."

Arthur Ollman, SD MoPA Director: "When I came here, I expected to stay three or four years, start a museum and then go back to being an artist. But I never anticipated that his would be my last job, that I would stay here until they carried me out."

Galinson: "Arthur clearly has I was going to say a national reputation, but I'd really say an international reputation. When you talk about photography, Arthur Ollman's name comes up all the time. Arthur's history and the history of MoPA are one and the same."

Arthur Ollman may believe he's ready to leave the museum but spend a little time with him, and you could begin to doubt that, as his pride in this institution is obvious.

Ollman: "So here we have a few items from the collection. The permanent collection is about 9,000 objects at this point, covering the entire history of photography from the end of the 1830s up to the present."

Pat Finn, Producer: "Whoa! This is cold in here and noisy as well!"

Ollman: "This is the vault where the permanent collection lives. It's 60 degrees and 40% humidity. All the shelves are open wire so that air circulates there's no dead air space all the boxes are computer coded rather than identified by artist, all for the protection of the art. So if somebody wanted to find something without the computer code, they'd probably freeze first."

When Ollman arrived here, he was an artist, not an administrator, a photographer, not a fundraiser. And the San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts consisted of a small, empty building and a lot of big ideas.

Ollman: "The idea of starting a museum, as opposed to just running somebody else's, was very seductive to me. I was living in Northern California, of course, a lot of us in Northern California at that time had this deep prejudice about Southern California, but when I came down and saw the space that they were going to be building in, I got very excited, and the people were wonderful, and so I went for it."

Galinson: "It was really started with Arthur's vision and that of a few people in San Diego who felt it was something that could develop into what it's developed into. They were gutsy. I mean they started from scratch what could have been nothing."

Ollman: "But when we opened, Pat, we were 7500 square feet."

Finn: "Very small."

Ollman: "Very small. The gallery was beautiful. It held all the shows we wanted to do or all the pictures we wanted to show at that point, but it didn't allow us much room for expansion. So when it became clear that our neighbors, the hall of champions were moving to another facility. And it's a long story, but eventually we got the space and we more than quadrupled. We now have 37,000 sq feet. We now have enough gallery space to do many exhibitions. We sent out shows out. I was thrilled and delighted when we sent our first show out in 1985. And major institutions around the country wanted to take our shows."

Arthur Ollman does have one failing. Ask him what he is proudest of and he is unable to choose.

Ollman: "The facility makes me very proud because it took a long time to build and it's glorious. The education programs we did a particular exhibition we created here on the first photographs ever made in the world, by William Henry Fox Talbot the inventor of positive-negative photography in England in 1839. I worked with everyone of my heroes in my medium, which is a tremendous honor and a pleasure. And wrote a lot.. I more or less put down a camera and picked up a pen and have been involved in 20-24 books, something like that, most of which we published, some have been published outside."

Now, that's quite a list. And it makes one wonder at the end of the day, just how the museum's board is going to find a replacement for Arthur Ollman.

Galinson: "It's not going to be easy. Arthur is going to be a tough act to follow."

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