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Best Places to See Contemporary Art

Trendsetting venues showing the best in local, national and international art

San Diego draws inventors, dreamers, pioneers and creators. It's an optimistic city, full of fresh ideas and energy, consistently ranked one of the best places to launch a startup. Maybe it's the ocean's endless movement and renewal, but whatever the source, the spirit of experimentation extends to San Diego's arts scene. Here are some of the leading museums and galleries who set the pace for the region that visitors won't want to miss.

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

The flagship of contemporary art in San Diego County, MCASD is concentrating on its downtown location while expanding and remodeling the La Jolla campus. Formerly the baggage claim terminal for the historic Santa Fe Train Depot, the downtown site boasts soaring ceilings that allow for big, bold statements, often relating to multicultural identity. While in the area, stop by the San Diego State University Downtown Gallery, just a block away. It has a strong program of local talent complemented by national and international artists.  

Where: 1100 Kettner Blvd, San Diego, CA 92101

Quint Gallery

Quint’s openings are stylish social events where you’re likely to spot a celebrity artist or two. When the gallery moved from La Jolla to a warehouse in a low-key design district, the atmosphere became a little more laid-back - but the art remains top-notch. Look for three large-scale installations per year plus six exhibitions.

Where: 5171 Santa Fe St, San Diego, CA 92117

San Diego Central Library Art Gallery

This is not the typical community art gallery found in a library. Since opening in 2013, the Central Library established itself as a serious player with a string of tightly curated exhibitions featuring artists from around the region. In addition, the building contains more than 150 paintings, drawings and photographs from San Diego’s Civic Art Collection, permanently installed throughout nine floors. Library and gallery hours differ; check the website for details.

Where: 330 Park Blvd, San Diego, CA 92101

Lux Art Institute

Perched atop a hillside in coastal North County, Lux Art Institute sets expectations with its striking concrete architecture and cantilevered roof — it the first art museum in California awarded LEED certification for new construction. Lux chooses five artists each year for its residency program, drawing big names who relish the idea of spending a month by the sea. Drop by, observe and ask questions during the creative process. Artworks remain on view for six to eight weeks after completion.

Where: 1550 S. El Camino Real, Encinitas, CA 92024

San Diego Art Institute

SDAI underwent a radical change in 2014, shifting from decades of demure portraiture and sleepy landscapes to…anything but. New media, immersive installations, kinetic work and internet art suddenly filled the space, and adventurous art-lovers responded with enthusiasm. Exhibitions often reflect San Diego’s unique take on art/tech/science hybrids.

Where: 1439 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101

Ship in the Woods

A group of artists bought a house in rural Escondido and turned it into a site for some of the coolest art parties around. Surprises are tucked into every corner, temporary pieces make use of the home's swimming pool and two acres of forest, and local bands frequently come to play. It’s a private residence, open only for events, but keep an eye on the Facebook page to learn what’s happening while you’re in town.

Where: 3007 Felicita Rd, Escondido, CA 92029

New Children's Museum

From its inception, the museum was designed to serve a dual purpose: to be an art museum and a children’s museum. Interactive room-sized installations let kids explore, experiment and create, all within an environment of thought-provoking, meaningful contemporary art. Several of the pieces examine aspects of life in California, from climate to border to language and culture. While it may be billed as a children’s museum, adults will fall in love with it, too.

Where: 200 W. Island Ave, San Diego, CA 92101

Bread & Salt

Architect James Brown transformed a century-old bread factory into artist’s studios, galleries and performance space. He kept the industrial equipment and raw floors, signaling that this is a work in progress where each visit will be different. Don’t expect docents or a welcome desk; it’s the kind of place where you ramble around and decide for yourself whether that rusty object is art.

Where: 1955 Julian Ave, San Diego, CA 92113

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