Monday, September 6, 2021

Introducing The Re-Visioned Mingei Museum

 By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt. Photos by Maurice Hewitt.

Inside the Mingei: the Frances Hamilton White Art Library, with Nakashima furniture on both sides of the glass wall.

At 9 o’clock on the sunless Friday morning preceding Labor Day weekend, there was sunshine in the hearts of more than 100 people gathered in Balboa Park’s Alcazar Garden, eagerly awaiting the grand re-opening of the Mingei International Museum, which has been undergoing major reconstruction for the past three years.

Besides representatives of local media, the crowd included supporters and friends of the Museum, and speakers included Mayor Todd Gloria and the two main movers and shakers of the project: Mingei Director/CEO Rob Sidner and architect Jennifer Luce. 

Rob Sidner addressing the crowd at the museum’s new West Entrance in Alcazar Garden, with the origami crane curtain behind him. Architect Jennifer Luce is second from left in the lineup of speakers, with the Niki de Sainte Phalle mosaic The Poet & His Muse spreading wings over all. (Niki’s beloved Nikigator has been on vacation at Liberty Station but will be back outside the main entrance soon.) 

Sidner, praised by all for his leadership, patience and spirit during the seven years of considering and implementing the museum’s transformation, spoke of the Three A’s they kept always in mind: Access, Art, and Architecture. “We invite visitors to explore, engage and connect with art and one another,” he said, noting that the main floor—the Commons, which would always have free admission—was meant to be a public living room where people can gather for good food and conversation.

He and Luce both stressed the idea of inclusiveness. “We can barely wait for you all to make this place your place,” said the architect. 

Decorating the new garden-side entrance was a curtain of origami cranes, made by museum volunteers. Origami cranes are said to symbolize success and good fortune, bringing in good energy with their folded-paper wings. Once speeches were over, the curtain was parted to let everyone in.

Not all of the many features of the new Mingei were on view inside. A number of the large-scale pieces designed to enhance the architecture—all commissioned from accomplished women artists—were not fully installed, and we weren’t able to see the lower level, with its high-design theater—formerly a loading dock—where Art of Elan would be performing that Sunday.

The handcrafted Artifact Restaurant Bar. (Note the ceiling, designed by Jennifer Luce.)

But as we walked into the building, the sense of spaciousness was overwhelming, a feeling that pervaded our entire half-hour stay before the doors were opened to the public. The Artifact restaurant was not diner-ready, but the 30-foot handcrafted bar was impressive. And the two new exhibitions upstairs—Global Spirit and Humble Spirit—had many delights, while the glass-fronted Art Library and the dramatic Founder’s Gallery gave us a chance to admire the craftsmanship of tables, chairs and benches from the studio of master woodworker George Nakashima (1905-1990) in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

The Global Spirit exhibition, featuring over 200 pieces of folk art from over 20 different countries.

Wooden armadillo, made in Brazil, part of the Global Spirit exhibit.

Mexican rooster, made of scrap metal, backed by other pieces from Global Spirit.

Indian elephant, made of papier mache and bamboo. (Global Spirit)

Tin Lantern from Mexico, Japanese cotton towels on wall, part of the Humble Spirit exhibit, showcasing notable art created from humble materials.

Lifesize figures of a late-20th-century wedding party, made of papier mache and dung, from Bihar, India. (Humble Spirit)

Detail: Two figures from wedding party sculpture.
The Mingei’s 55-million-dollar renovation has so far raised $47 million from about 700 contributors—some giving as little as $5, some up to $15 million—and it’s definitely a place you’ll want to see for yourself. There are indoor and outdoor spaces to explore at your leisure, keeping an eye out for artful details on walls and ceilings. Artifact restaurant, opening in mid-October, promises to be a real palate-pleaser, and don’t miss the expansive park views from the upper decks. 

Entry to the Board Room, aka Founders Gallery.

In the Courtyard: Hand-twisted bronze picket fence by Jennifer Luce with A. Zahner/Zahner Labs. 

About the Mingei: Originally founded in 1978 by ceramicist/art professor Martha Longenecker (1920-2013), the Mingei began as a small space in University Towne Centre dedicated to Japanese folk art. Its name means “art of the people,” but over the years, it embraced the folk art of many cultures, and moved into Balboa Park in 1996. A nonprofit institution, the museum honors anonymous craftsmen from ancient times as well as contemporary designers, and welcomes over 100,000 visitors a year.

Mingei International Museum
HOURS: Sat-Wed, 10 am-5 pm. Thur-Fri, 10 am-8 pm.
ADMISSION: Adults: $14. Seniors, students, military: $10. Under age 18: Free.
Commons Level: Free to all.

Lonnie Burstein Hewitt is an award-winning author/lyricist/playwright who has written about arts and lifestyle for the La Jolla Light and other local media for over a dozen years. You can reach her at

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