The Timken Museum. Photo credit: courtesy photo.
The Timken Museum. Photo credit: courtesy photo.

edited by Lorie Hearn | inewsource

Just before the Timken Museum of Art’s 50th anniversary in 2015 and after six years of increased attendance, the museum’s board of trustees replaced executive director John Wilson with an art conservator who will be based in New York City.

Wilson officially, and abruptly, resigned two weeks ago.

David Bull, 80, is now the visiting director at the small, jewel box museum in Balboa Park. He won’t be available for an interview for two months, according to a spokesperson for the museum.

“David Bull is a rock star of art,” said Timken board president Tim Zinn, of his choice to replace Wilson. “He is one of the top four restorers of art in the world. Not in the United States, in the world.”

Bull chairs the painting conservation department at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and owns a painting restoration business where he restores art for private collectors. He even consults with popular author Daniel Silva on his series of books about an Israeli assassin whose day job is an art restorer.

Bull will devote 20% of his time to the Timken, and only a portion of that will be in San Diego.

Anita Crider, a trustee who has taken a leave of absence from the board, will handle the day-to-day operations of the museum.

Some in the art community say hiring a part-time director based on the east coast is not the way to run a professional museum, especially at a time when the Timken has reached new heights heading into the 2015 anniversary year. Attendance has risen, there have been critically-lauded special exhibitions, and new sources of funding have been tapped in recent years.

The board of trustees, some of whom have served on the board for years, believe Bull’s charm and prestige will attract donors while a veteran local museum director says fundraising is best done by those with strong ties in the community.

Wilson, who has worked in museums for 25 years, left because he and the board disagreed on how to grow the museum. In a written statement, Wilson said he believes the members of the Timken board want the museum to thrive. “However, as with everything in life there are different means and differences of opinion as to how to achieve those goals,” wrote Wilson.

Major challenges

The Timken is facing major challenges in outreach and fundraising.

The Timken has long struggled with outreach. It’s one of the most overlooked museums in Balboa Park, which is puzzling because its mid-century building, boxy and modern, is distinct among the Spanish Colonial architecture throughout the park. It’s also free. And, its stellar collection of old master paintings includes the only Rembrandt south of Los Angeles.

David Bull is the visiting director at the Timken Museum of Art. Photo credit: courtesy photo.
David Bull is the visiting director at the Timken Museum of Art. Photo credit: courtesy photo.

“We get people in here all the time that will say I’ve lived in San Diego for 32 years and I never knew this museum existed,” said security guard Darwin Reitz.

John Wilson was trying to change that. During his tenure, the museum had its highest attendance ever and received county and city funds for the first time.

“It’s potential was finally being tapped by John Wilson,” said Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. “And I can’t for the life of me figure out why you would nip that in the bud. I can only think it comes from the leadership of the board.”

Zinn says Wilson was a great curator, but the board wanted a different fundraising and administrative approach. “It’s where you put your time,” said Zinn, suggesting that Wilson’s focus was too heavy on curating.

“And he’s been here for six years and sometimes it’s just time to repot a plant.”

Zinn says Bull’s expertise will be important when the Timken wants to buy a painting for the collection or mount a special exhibit. “He knows where art is because he restores a lot of it,” said Zinn.

Money is necessary to buy new art. Zinn says the board believes Bull can raise funds in San Diego.

Davies disagrees.

“David Bull will not be able to raise money. You have to know people and have known them for a long time,” said Davies. “You have to be invested in the community. He is just parachuting in five or six times a year for cocktail parties and openings.”

One of the divisive issues between Wilson and the board was who was responsible for fundraising. Wilson wanted the board to facilitate more access to individuals and families who might give to the Timken. Zinn says a case for giving, especially since the museum already has a $25 million endowment, needed to come from Wilson. “That needed to start with the administration of the museum,” said Zinn. “John’s feeling was the board needed to come up with that. A different philosophy.”

“It requires teamwork,” said Willard White, a consultant with Marts and Lundy, a fundraising consulting firm in New Jersey, which was hired by the Timken in early 2014 to look at the museum’s fundraising approach and growth opportunities. White submitted his report to the board, and in it he says “there was quite a statement of board responsibility for fundraising.” “That could not have been clearer to the ones who received the document,” added White.

Zinn would not provide a copy of the report, saying it’s a private internal document.

John Wilson ran the Timken Museum of Art for six years before resigning two weeks ago. Photo credit: courtesy photo.
John Wilson ran the Timken Museum of Art for six years before resigning two weeks ago. Photo credit: courtesy photo.

The museum’s history goes back to the Putnam sisters, both art lovers who inherited millions, who were unhappy with the leadership of the San Diego Museum of Art and pulled their funding. Under the guidance of their lawyer, Walter Ames, they decided to build a separate collection and, in 1951, set up the Putnam Foundation. Ames soon became president of the Foundation. The Timken family, who had a summer home in San Diego and were also Ames’ clients, funded the actual museum building to house the collection.

The leadership of the museum was handed down through generations of the Ames family, none of whom were trained arts professionals. They hired curators to consult. A member of the Ames family still sits on the board.

For years, the Timken’s incredible collection was maintained in a beautiful facility but unseen by many.

Melody Kanschat, director of the Getty Leadership Institute, says a museum’s success is not just measured by its collection. “It’s wonderful to have these collections kept and have them grow and be of the highest quality. Of course it doesn’t really work unless you have an audience come and enjoy them,” said Kanschat.

Wilson was hired in 2008 and was the first museum professional to run the Timken.

Zinn says his plans for the museum include spreading the word about the Timken, especially going into 2015. “It’s going to be fun. I’m going to make 2015 a very successful 50th anniversary celebration for the Timken,” said Zinn.

“My theme for the last couple of years,” said Zinn, “is the Timken Museum of Art: the center of art, energy, and fun in Balboa Park.”

Angela Carone covers arts and culture for KPBS. Angela has degrees in political science from Pennsylvania State University and in English literature from Georgia State University. She is also a published photographer.