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Top 10 Permanent Collections at San Diego Museums

Get to know San Diego through treasures from the vaults


Art collections are the backbone of a community, the touchstones of who we are and what we value. They mark cultural growth and aesthetic development by preserving important moments of history. For a visitor seeking an authentic connection to San Diego, time spent with a museum’s permanent collection reveals much about the city’s past, present and hopes for the future. What emerges is a picture of a global region, deeply connected to Latin America and Asia, open-minded and embracing innovation.

Athenaeum Music & Arts Library

Founded in 1899, the Athenaeum is the oldest cultural institution in La Jolla and the second-oldest in San Diego. The permanent collection, now numbering 300 pieces, began in earnest in 1989 when executive director Erika Torri joined the organization. Pieces are selected from San Diego and Tijuana artists who have exhibited at the library, producing a chronological portrait of local art. A key work is "Mary at the Stove," a large painting by Patricia Patterson. Torri says that Patterson painted it on a false wall but couldn’t bear to part with it at the end of the show. The artist took the entire wall home. Twenty years later, Torri bought it back and had it installed in the stairway.

The Athenaeum also has a large collection of artist-created books — approximately 2,000 —  with a particularly strong holding in conceptual artists’ books, boasting complete collections by Ed Ruscha, Ida Applebroog, Allen Ruppersberg, John Baldessari, Bruce Nauman, Roberta Allen, Allan Kaprow and Mel Bochner. Some are on display in the galleries, and others are available on request.

Where: 1008 Wall St, La Jolla, CA 92037

Japanese Friendship Garden

The Japanese Friendship Garden may be the only museum with a permanent collection that wiggles. The garden’s 20 prized koi are considered one of their best-known assets, along with 16 bonsai. Two of the California Junipers are more than 300 years old and have been pruned and shaped for two decades. In the Activity Center, you'll find kimonos and Japanese crafts, mostly contemporary works created between 1900 and 1960.

Where: 2215 Pan American Rd East, San Diego, CA 92101

Mingei International Museum

Mingei is serious about the "international" portion of its name: the museum has acquired more than 26,000 items from 160 countries. One of the most loved pieces is the Nakashima table in the Founders’ Gallery, constructed of two matching slabs of black walnut with rosewood butterfly joints. In keeping with the museum’s focus on the art, design and function of practical objects — the word "mingei" means "arts of the people" the table is regularly used for meetings. On view through November 2017 is a life-sized ritual horse from India, part of the exhibition, "Trappings — Homage to the Horse and Other Steeds." A few recent acquisitions are a dramatic 17th century wooden Koma Inu (lion dog) and a delicate Bizen Yaki koro (incense burner) in the form of a persimmon.

Where: 1439 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

The strength and breadth of MCASD’s permanent collection is driving an expansion of their La Jolla facility. Over the next few years, the museum will add 30,000 square feet to be able to show works like Ellsworth Kelly’s monumental "Red Blue Green" and Andy Warhol’s "Flowers." The collection contains more than 4,700 works created after 1950, with an emphasis on Light and Space, Minimalism and Pop Art, conceptual art, Latin America, San Diego and Tijuana. In particular, MCASD prides itself on spotting early talent and under-recognized midcareer artists. While the La Jolla site is closed for construction, stop by the downtown branch where you’ll find Jenny Holzer’s "For MCASD," Roman de Salvo’s "Power Maze with Sconce" and Richard Serra’s "Santa Fe Depot."

Where: 1100 Kettner Blvd, San Diego, CA 92101

Museum of Photographic Arts

One of the first U.S. museums exclusively devoted to photography, MOPA’s 7,000 images represent a wealth of genres and techniques, from early 19th century daguerreotypes to contemporary digital hybrids. The collection is particularly strong in mid-20th century Soviet Russian photography, but also includes the Nagasaki Journey Archive, a powerful and sobering look at the aftermath of the 1945 bombing; and the Lynn G. Fayman Archive, the work of a San Diego photographer and filmmaker who pushed the boundaries of abstraction.

Where: 1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92103

Oceanside Museum of Art

OMA started building a permanent collection in 2008, when a 16,000-square-foot addition provided enough room. It contains more than 600 items, focused on Southern California and Baja California from 1900 to the present. A signature piece is James Hubbell’s bronze sculpture, "Opus," rising above the front terrace. The museum recently acquired two large circular artworks by Marjorie Nodelman, a feminist pioneer of San Diego’s art scene who called herself "the first punk painter." Coming soon is a rotating show of permanent collection highlights that will occupy a portion of the lobby.

Where: 704 Pier View Way, Oceanside, CA 92054

San Diego History Center

Known for its extensive library of photographs (2.5 million images and growing), the San Diego History Center has been quietly building an art collection. It now numbers more than 1,700 pieces and features paintings, sculptures, drawings, lithographs and etchings, with an emphasis on early 20th century plein air painters. Other highlights are eight sinuous rosewood and mahogany figures by local sculptor Donal Hord, and 17,000 historical objects such as children's toys, medical and dental objects, and Kumeyaay artifacts. The newest acquisition is the complete sailing exhibition that was formerly housed at the Hall of Champions. Centered on the America's Cup, it examines San Diego's many connections to the sport of sailing.

Where: 1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101

San Diego Museum of Art

SDMA’s permanent collection starts at the front door. The museum’s façade incorporates life-sized sculptures of Spanish masters Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Francisco de Zurbarán and Diego Velázquez as well as reliefs of Jusepe de Ribera and El Greco. Inside, more Spanish masterpieces span the centuries from Renaissance to Post-Impressionism. One of the latest acquisitions, currently on display, is Ribera’s "Saint James the Lesser," circa 1632. With roughly 18,000 works in the combined collections, it’s difficult to single out just one area, but the museum’s encyclopedic collection of South Asian paintings is considered among the finest and most comprehensive outside of India. Assembled by Edwin Binney 3rd (1925–1986), an heir to the Crayola fortune, it consists of more than 1,400 works of art created between the 12th and 19th centuries.

Where: 1450 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92102

San Diego Museum of Us

With a whopping 150,000 ethnographic objects, including art and artifacts, and more than 100,000 images, the Museum of Us has the largest vault by far. In the exhibition, "Living with Animals," look for a pair of insect earrings from Peru, circa 1980. They're made of beetle shells and toucan feathers, and the lustrous colors glisten under the light. In the "BEERology" exhibit, you'll find a bronze drinking vessel with Akhenaten’s cartouche from the Great Temple of Aten in Egypt, 1353-1336 B.C. Akhenaten, otherwise known as Amenhotep IV, was married to queen Nefertiti and may have been the father of King Tutankhamun. He was also an early patron of the arts.

Where: 1350 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101

Timken Museum of Art

The Timken stands in serene contrast to Balboa Park’s bustling Plaza de Panama. Inside the elegant mid-century modern building are masterworks ranging from 14th century altarpieces, to 18th century portraits and landscapes, to 19th century still life paintings. The collection contains 75 pieces, with 25 Russian icons and four French tapestries. The oldest painting is Italian, circa 1310, "Madonna and Child and Two Angels, with Twelve Scenes from the Passion," credited to The Magdalene Master and an Unknown Florentine Painter. Signature paintings are Rembrandt van Rijn’s "Saint Bartholomew," circa 1657; Francisco de Zurbarán’s "Saint Francis in Meditation," circa 1635; and significant works from John Singleton Copley, George Inness and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Where: 1500 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101

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