Derrick Cartwright is planning, fund-raising and hoping for a little divine intervention as he develops the collection at the San Diego Museum of Art
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WHO DOESN’T CHEER when an everyday Joe displays his $15 ceramic rooster on Antiques Roadshow and discovers it’s a rare example of American craftsmanship valued at $15,000? But when New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art recently paid an estimated $45 million for the Renaissance painting Madonna and Child, the world was stunned. It was the Met’s grandest purchase ever, and while the price is indicative of a skyrocketing art market, it doesn’t reflect all the considerations that come into play when experts decide the value of a masterpiece.
Acquiring a world-class work of art shines a spotlight on a city’s culture and resources, while placing an indelible mark on a museum director’s tenure. Competing with private collectors is a tricky prospect, and the price tag is only part of it.
Just ask San Diego Museum of Art executive director Derrick R. Cartwright. “We aren’t about participating in the art market in a sensational way,” he says. “Paintings by Raphael sell for $50 million or more, and paintings by Picasso are inching toward the $100 million range. But we can’t think about it in those terms. What we are doing is preserving visual culture for all time.”
Developing a collection requires a combination of strategic planning, timing, available funds and, perhaps, what some curators and directors would consider divine intervention. Done right, it’s a process that opens eyes and changes lives.
Cartwright discusses his favorite acquisition, a drawing by the late Eva Hesse, much like an Olympic gold medalist recalls a winning race.
He was director of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College at the time, intent on adding more works by women artists. Cartwright had his eye on Hesse’s art—she was one of the more exciting minimalists of the 1960s. Her sculptures and paintings were provocative, pairing opposing elements in a way many believe reflected a life of inner turmoil.
Hesse died of brain cancer in 1970 at 34, leaving a legacy of remarkable art that resonated with an emotionally charged, humanistic quality. What’s more, her work was rapidly increasing in value.
“She has been the subject of many retrospectives since her death, and I was in conversations with collectors of her work,” says Cartwright. “Meanwhile, I was working with a group of patrons of the museum who were helping me create new funds. A work was offered to one of the great collectors of Eva Hesse’s work, and instead of buying it for himself, he offered it to me so I could buy it for the college.”
The untitled piece was a 1964 drawing that had remained hidden away in a drawer until Cartwright purchased it. The memory still fills him with a sense of wonder. “It absolutely prefigures the kind of serial sculpture she did in latex and fiberglass in the next phase of her career. It’s a beautiful thing, and the fact that it was fresh to the world after 40 years made it very exciting for me to present to a community.
Back in 1926, when the Balboa Park institution was known as the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, one of its more valuable jewels was the painting Maria at La Granja by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida. The life-size study of a woman in a white dress, standing against a sun-streaked landscape, became the first in what grew to be a notable collection of works by Spanish painters. Huntington, a major figure in 20th-century art patronage, donated the painting to the museum, in memory of his mother.
“The painting was part of the inaugural exhibition, and it says something about the quality of work that was being displayed in San Diego,” Cartwright says. “Now we have to continue to live up to it, which is no longer easy to do. The art market has been so robust over the past few years, very few museums can compete for the top works.”
A California native, Cartwright is the seventh director in the museum’s history, and he’s up for a challenge. For one, he’s equipped with an educational background that includes a master’s degree in art history from UCLA and a doctorate from the University of Michigan.
Cartwright, who turns 43 this month, taught at the University of San Diego for five years before accepting directing positions at the Musée d’ Art Américain Giverny in France and at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum, one of the oldest college museums in the country. At the San Diego Museum of Art, he’ll work with a team of four curators to build the museum’s collections and reinforce its reputation.
“What great museums do is form relationships of duration and trust,” he says. “We must recognize great merit, but in terms slightly different than the business world.”
When Cartwright contemplates future acquisitions, he’s immediately cognizant of SDMA’s greatest strengths. One of its most desirable works is Juan Sánchez Cotán’s Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, named in The Folio Society Book of the 100 Greatest Paintings.
Displayed in the museum since 1945, the painting is a remarkable illusion created with fruit and vegetables, positioned in a half-circle within a framed windowsill. Drops of moisture glisten on a fresh-cut melon, and vegetables that hang from a string inside the interior frame create a sense of depth.
Another claim to fame was established in 1988, when Edwin Binney III, heir to the Crayola fortune, donated 1,400 works that encompass some of the finest examples of South Asian art in the world.
The museum’s most recent significant acquisition is a voluptuous bronze statue from the late Chola period. Known as Shri Devi, she is a bejeweled Indian goddess representing prosperity and good fortune, and a fitting complement to the Binney Collection. Find her in the upper rotunda, smiling sweetly at all who pass.