Living History of the Guild -
author has made a remarkable effort to synthesize over 100 years in
the history of the San Diego Artists Guild form 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 Dong 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.
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
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.
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.
author could only hint at highlights since there are too many incidents
and biographies as yet to be researched. This is a major beginning.
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.
Curator Emeritus, San Diego Museum of Art