San Diego Celebrates Balboa Park’s 100 Year Anniversary

One-hundred years ago, San Diego’s Balboa Park opened for the first time. The public was able to come together as a community to celebrate art and music. The scene was that of a fairground, almost similar to something like Coney Island.

Previously called “City Park,” the park was renamed Balboa Park by the Panama California Exposition in 1915 to celebrate the Vasco Nunez de Balboa’s first sighting of the Pacific Ocean while on his journey to Panama. This grand opening of Balboa Park celebrated the inaugural of the Panama Canal in 1914.

Professor Scott Wyss, who teaches Art 215 Intro to Computer Graphics, in addition to three other art classes at San Diego State University (SDSU), had an interest sparked in him to visit the Coney Island exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art. He went to Coney Island this past summer and was curious about the temporary exhibit.

And that was just the fear that Robin Jaffee Frank had. As a newly experienced curator for the Coney Island Exhibition that began in Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, she feared that the exhibit would not fit well in San Diego’s Museum of Art after the exhibit’s transference. Yet, the exhibition is thriving because of visitors like Wyss that go out of inquisitiveness.

Coming from Yale, it was Frank’s idea to create an exhibition that celebrated American culture. She was inspired by a group of paintings from Yale that all related to Coney Island. While at Yale, she had come to San Diego’s Museum of Art to look at a painting that she was interested in including for her exhibit. Once she moved to San Diego, she brought her ideas with her.

Ariel Plotek, the Associate Curator of Modern Art for San Diego’s Museum of Art, serves as the exhibit’s project manager. The layout of the show displays his work. He said that the exhibit’s board of directors believed Frank’s idea to be a perfect fit for Balboa’s 100 year anniversary.

“In 1915, the park was a little like a fairground. There was a kind of spirit that was close, in some way, to that of Coney Island,” Plotek said.

As this show opened in 2015 out of celebration to the grand opening of Balboa Park, the Museum of Art began leading up to this celebration by exhibiting “Sorolla and America” in 2014. The museum’s “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008” ends October 13.

On the opposite end of the museum, patrons find themselves in The Art of Music exhibition, which mainly functions as the celebration of Balboa Park’s centennial. Plotek, along with all of the museum’s curators, worked on this show together.

“The reason for this being our grand finale for the 2015 celebration is that when [the] fair was going on in the park, there was 365 days of music,” said Plotek. “So we thought we would create this exhibition about the relationship between art and music to celebrate that.”

Just as one walks into the gallery, one will find a gigantic ear with a trumpet emitting from it. If spoken into, the trumpet will play Beethoven’s Opus 127. Because Beethoven was deaf when he composed this piece, the trumpet symbolizes his hearing aid since they had yet to exist during his time.

John Baldessari, the artist of this creation, was inspired to include a musical piece from Beethoven because he visited Beethoven’s house museum, where some of his ear trumpets can still be seen.

“The Art of Music” is composed of three sections, showcasing paintings and artifacts from diverse cultures. Although the exhibit is not solely focused on American art, it still relates to the origins of Balboa Park because of the music that was played each day.

Lilly Peterson, San Diego’s Art of Museum Visitor Relations Associate, said that the museum’s temporary exhibits are not directly related to celebrating the park’s anniversary, but they are designed to bring as many visitors as possible to Balboa Park. The temporary exhibits include: “Pan Gongkai’s Chinese Contemporary Exhibition”, “Coney Island’s Visions of American Dreamland Exhibition” and “Gregory Crewdson’s Dream House Exhibition”.

Balboa Park’s Model Railroad Museum volunteer, John W. Phillips, works with the Centennial Railway Garden that specifically celebrates Balboa Park’s anniversary. Phillips said that the park modeled in the garden represents the park from 1915; buildings are represented that no longer exist. Almost all of the models were made possible by a 3D computerized printer.

Initially, the park included a trolley station that used to run all along Park Boulevard. Ever since the trolley system was removed, it has been replaced by the current rose garden.

The trollies that ran along the railways were modeled after the Class One Streetcars that existed in the early 1900s. According to Phillips, the donator of the Organ Pavilion, John Spreckels, owned a trolley company that inspired him to purposefully design these cars to be presented at the great exposition in 1915. These Class One Streetcars are also known as the Exposition Streetcars.

Another building that no longer exists is the Ostrich Pyramid, which can be seen in the Centennial Railway Garden. It used to occupy the space where the zoo is now located. An ostrich farm surrounded the pyramid, but it was removed not too long after 1915.

Buildings like the California Bell Tower, Spreckels Organ Pavilion and Botanical Gardens are still occupying the same space since 1915. As a celebration of the park’s anniversary, the California Bell Tower now allows visitors to climb up the tower with the presence of a tour guide. This accessibility has not been possible for the public since 1935.

Inside the Centennial Railway Garden, one can see an intricate model of the Botanical Gardens building that was made by a laser cutter. As not many people are aware, the actual Botanical Gardens contains over 2100 plants.

The buildings where the current museums are, such as the Mingei International Museum and San Diego Museum of Art, have always been there. However, the museums themselves have not.

“A lot of the buildings here in the park were part of what was called the Navy Training Station,” said Phillips. “So there’s been a cycle of tenants, if you will. And the buildings have been used for numerous purposes over the years.”

Balboa Park is a great resource for PLNU students. Courtney Mayer, an art professor at PLNU who teaches Art 303 Typography, believes that the park makes the university unique because of its close proximity to the school.

“It’s been a place where I’ve been able to take a class and lead some students into a specific project,” said Mayer. “And as professors, we are trying to build relationships with those institutions and those leaders and administrators to create opportunities for students.”


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Jayme O'Hanlon

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