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Art For (All) People: The Mingei Is Back

Ron Kerner / Courtesy of Mingei International Museum
Dale Chihuly's 2005 glass sculpture, "Mingei International Museum Chandelier," hangs in the newly revealed House of Charm tower, above the museum's central stairwell.

After a significant remodel, Mingei International Museum will reopen its (new) doors to the public with free admission this weekend and a commitment to radical hospitality.

After a significant remodel, Mingei International Museum will reopen its (new) doors to the public with free admission this weekend, an always-free first floor and commitment to radical hospitality.

Three years and fifty-five million dollars later, the Mingei is back.

Balboa Park's Mingei International Museum was founded in 1996 by Martha Longenecker as a place for folk art — "mingei" means "art of the people." The institution has been dedicated to folk art, craft and design ever since, even while relocated to temporary offices in Liberty Station for the past three years.


Ideas for a renovation began to take shape six years ago, when museum leadership started to take stock of wear and tear.

"In a practical sense, the transformation certainly began with some very tangible things that needed to change in the Museum. We needed new floors. Our lighting had become obsolete," said Jessica Hanson York, the Mingei's deputy director and chief advancement officer.

Julia Dixon Evans
Christina Kim's textile work "liquid2solid' is shown installed at the Mingei International Museum in an Aug. 30, 2021 photo.

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Soon, the staff began to wonder — to dream, really. Just what else could be possible in this space?


"After we'd selected [Jennifer Luce] as the architect, once we started talking to her, she sat down and interviewed every single member of the staff. I think in listening to all of us, she was able to stitch together a more cohesive vision that we could all get behind as we began to think about a holistic renovation of the entire building. And so I think that desire for better and more professional functioning behind the scenes, the desire to really restore and reinvigorate this historic building, and the goal to connect more to this gorgeous park that we sit in the center of, and most importantly, to better serve our visitors, to be more open, to be more welcoming, and to be more accessible," Hanson York said.

Courtesy of LUCE et studio
A 1916 photograph shows the House of Charm and Balboa Park's plaza in use, including the terraces above the arcade. The photo inspired architect Jennifer Luce to re-establish those terraces for museum visitors.

She said that the idea of "radical hospitality" drove their design.

With the renovation, the Mingei didn't add a large amount of extra square footage: a new outdoor patio, and reactivating balcony space above the public arcade after architect Jennifer Luce found a historical photograph showing it in use.

But they did completely transform how the existing space is used — and who it is for.

"First and foremost, we want every visitor who walks in the door to feel welcome, to feel like they belong here, that this is their museum. We don't want them to feel intimidated," Hanson York said. "This building was designed to be beautiful. And back to that ethos of 'mingei,' we want people to feel like they can have a beautiful experience here."

Mingei International Museum
"Bird," cane and string, by unknown artist in Mexico, circa 1925-1975.

Hanson York said that the selection of their two opening exhibitions, "Global Spirit," and "Humble Spirit/Priceless Art" is an important way to kick things off and share the mission with the public. Both exhibitions will be on view in the second floor gallery. Particularly, "Humble Spirit," the show curated by the museum's director, Rob Sidner.

"People will come to understand that priceless works of art are not about money. Right? Again, it's about the spirit of a piece, the beauty of something, utility of an object," Hanson York said.

Also worth a peek: the collection of site-specific permanent installations throughout the building, like the large-scale, functional textile works by Claudy Jongstra, Christina Kim, and Petra Blaisse. Textile works at such a scale serve to absorb sound or divide a room.

Courtesy of Mingei International Museum
Claudy Jongstra's wool mural, "Truth and Beauty In Black" is installed above the Mingei's new bar, Artifact. The taps were designed by architect Jennifer Luce to mimic Hedgerow, the new outdoor fence.

And don't forget to look up: Dale Chihuly's iconic glass "Mingei International Museum Chandelier" now graces a newly revealed tower, hung dramatically above a stairway. Above the restaurant and bar, the ceiling is actually a large-scale replica of a player piano roll of the song "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" — said to be Sidner's favorite. Upstairs, Luce designed the ceiling tiles to look like subtle origami folds.

Luce also leaned into historical characteristics in the building, using the design to draw attention to existing architectural features, all done with the aim of a LEED Gold Certification. She also added a series of new, glass entrance doors, opening up the space with both light and access.

Courtesy of Mingei International Museum
Mingei architect Jennifer Luce echoed the historic building's architectural features when adding new entryways, including new public access from Balboa Park's Alcazar Garden.

To celebrate this weekend, the Mingei will offer free admission to everyone Friday through Monday. The grand opening weekend includes several events, including dance performances from the Center for World Music on Sunday, and a family art project with artist Jennifer Ling Findley on Sunday.

On Sunday afternoon, musicians from Art of Elan will serenade visitors with folk and classical music performances peppered throughout the museum.

It's a glimpse of what the Mingei hopes to do regularly. "Community Mondays" is a new program that will begin later in the fall.

"Our new theater is such a beautiful space, and we feel like we really need to share it with the community. So we're turning over the theater for free, no strings attached to smaller nonprofit organizations and community groups, individual artists who need a space to perform, to hold an event or a meeting," Hanson York said.

Julia Dixon Evans
The Mingei's theater is flanked by "Sessions," a felt and silk organza textile work by artist Petra Blaisse named after famed Balboa Park horticulturist and landscape designer Kate Sessions. It functions as an acoustic curtain and features jacaranda leaf patterning.

After the grand opening, the entire first floor of the museum will always be free and open to the public, seven days a week, with admission only required for the second floor galleries. The first floor holds the new Craft Cafe, serving coffee, breakfast and lunch foods. It's also home to Shop Mingei, plus several displays of art from the museum's collection.

Beginning in October, the full-service restaurant and bar, Artifact, will open in the public space. The bar features a row of twisty brass taps that echo Luce's "Hedgerow" fence in the exterior patio space.

For kids, a new classroom space has been designed into the building, and Niki de Saint Phalle's iconic sculpture, "Nikigator," will return to its rightful home soon, just outside the museum's many new doors.

"We really envision that within a few weeks, a few months, that this common level of the Museum, especially once the restaurant opens, is a bustling, welcoming hub in the center of the park," Hanson York said.

Corrected: April 25, 2022 at 8:23 PM PDT
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misidentified Dale Chihuly. KPBS regrets the error.