The author has made a remarkable effort to synthesize over 100 years in the history of the San Diego Artists Guild from its origins in 1904 through the present. From scarcely a handful of artists living out their final years painting portraits and an unfamiliar landscape, the Guild developed into a group achieving national and even international kudos, introducing eastern and European viewers to the remarkable American Southwest. Not only did the Guild represent the nascent artists circle, but on a larger scale, they represented the cultural community generally. The visual arts preceded most of the related arts enjoyed by San Diegans today, including music, dance and theatre.
The newly opened Fine Art Gallery in 1926, today called the San Diego Museum of Art, was the natural hub of the cultural scene, giving the community a modicum of refinement in a somewhat frontier-like town. Every occasion seemed to occur there from political, social, to artistic activity. The artists of the area were an essential element in the development and organization of the new museum. In addition to providing the art for display, many served as directors, trustees, and teachers in the museum, using it as a home base, promoting art and the museum. They were supported by early directors, the business community, and a great deal of enthusiasm on the part of a general membership.
Sandwiched between two international expositions, the museum became the central artistic center of its setting in Balboa Park, serving as the Palace of Fine Arts during the later and attracting a wide international generation of art writers, scholars, museum directors, and of course artists. Ex-Chicagoan Belle Baranceanu had arrived to paint murals for the exposition and became San Diego's prime practitioner. Her words were authoritative by the end of her life, as she was recognized for her contributions to the genre and as the U.S. Government was reevaluating its support of a lot of poor art during the 1930's. Local artists reaped the benefits of government-sponsored art including Charles Reiffel, Donal Hord, Alfred R. Mitchell, Esther Stevens Barney, Elliot Torrey, Sarah Truax, and Ruth Townsend Whitaker, all guild members.
Many of the early artists within the museum membership belonged to the monied/social set that wanted to be a part of the bright future for the arts of the community. Some such as Henry Lord Gay, Robert W. Snyder, and James Hubbell, who defies classification, were architects. The earliest had arrived on commissions to design energy plants, public buildings, and homes for the discriminating early cultural patrons.
A number of the earliest guild artists were dissatisfied with the staid conditions of the Eastern art scene and had moved westward for more artistic freedom in addition for health and economic reasons. When they stepped on the train they realized they were leaving Madison Avenue hype, representative dealers, and a selection of well-known venues. They looked forward to having the freedom to develop independent styles. Maurice Braun, Leon Durrand Bonnet, and Charles A. Fries reveled in the challenge of new frontiers apart from the jury systems and academic expectations of the east. Unfortunately they also gave up the economic possibilities offered there.
Today their art is appreciated, collected, and exhibited nationwide, including the eastern venues they deserted. In the 1940's, with San Diego considered a strategic area, the Museum of Art and the entire Balboa Park complex adapted battle-ship gray as its basic color when the city went to war. The museum became a 423 bed navy hospital. Guild artists did their part for the war effort. They offered classes to military personnel on the mend. Margaret Robbins, for example, received a letter of commendation from the Mayor's office for her efforts. Anni Balbaugh taught classes in camouflage. Visiting artists continued to arrive in the community and taught at the continued activities of the museum and its members. Margaret Robbins and Stanley Ledington, a published musician as well as a fine watercolorist, began a lifelong friendship with Doug Kingman, one of America's leading watercolorists, as did Reginald G. Poland, who steered the museum through the difficult period, was also, included in this intimate circle of acquaintances.
It was a period when Jackson Pollock and the American Expressionists shocked the art world with a new technical approach to painting. The war between 'Traditionalism' and 'Modernism' came to the fore. Guild members were taking sides, perhaps with less extreme dedication than their eastern contemporaries. Some, such as Alfred A. Mitchell, advocated a middle ground and tempered judgment. The definition of art was expanding. The old standards were changing. It seemed the world was in a state of flux. Disagreement and crisis in art became a norm. The Guild continued juried-systems, sometimes a cause for disagreement. Groups supporting one or the other trends were formed even within the Guild. The Contemporary Artists of San Diego, in 1929 had claimed the first professional organization in San Diego promoting practicing artists, essentially themselves. All were known beyond the regional area, and had exhibited nationally and even internationally. They were supported by the museum, which offered a yearly exhibition. In a lay member plan, formed for support, local patrons could draw for works by its members Charles A. Fries, Donal Hord, Everett Gee Jackson, Leslie W. Lee, Charles Reiffel, Otto H. Schneider, and Elliot Torrey. The group existed for a brief period of time with a paucity of sales. Disagreement had played a minor note as had death of some members and economical needs in the groups dissolution. Other groups followed, but with less community enthusiasm than the former.
During the 1950's and 1960's, Guild activities with museum members, were directed at fund raising. In addition to the museum wing addition underway, everyone worked to accomplish this objective. Guild members continued providing exhibitions, classes, and lectures to interested and potential patrons. They continued working as active artists, developing individual careers, exhibiting on the East Coast and Europe, and developing a following of their own. Russell Forester, John Baldessari, and Jackson Woolley were exhibiting abroad with kudos in art journals. Alfred R. Mitchell declined the directorship of the Kansas City Art Institute, as did Reginald H. Poland, the same position at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Today, Museum administration has become extraordinarily commercial and business like. The crises seem to emphasize the administrator vs. the curator, economic survival or fine art. The artist, unfortunately seems a victim of sorts. Fine Arts usually means an 'outstanding collection of master works'. Working artists, seem an incidental adjunct. The debate has not been totally resolved. Without either there is no museum. Legal matters complicated the issues between both groups. None the less, there is evidence as noted by Maurice Braun as early as 1928, "California had already contributed to the history of art in America, but she is destined to add far more brilliant pages, not in individual effort, but in the great number of artists who will take part in making here a culture which is not yet imagined." San Diego Guild members undoubtedly, have contributed to the evolution. It would seem, that the early eastern observation that San Diego was a "cultural wasteland" was unjustified.
The author could only hint at highlights since there are too many incidents and biographies as yet to be researched. This is a major beginning.
It was my pleasure and privilege to know many of these artists. My perspective, perhaps slanted, of the history of the Guild and the art scene as a consequence of my 40 years on the staff of the San Diego Museum of Art, has been a memorable experience.
Members of the Contemporary
Artists of San Diego pose with their wives and other family members
at the foot of the grand staircase of the Fine Arts Gallery (San Diego
Museum of Art) on the occasion of their first exhibition at the museum