At the San Diego History Center, a historic donation

"The Copper Pot (1)" by Mary Plaisted Austin (oil on board, 1941)
“The Copper Pot (1)” by Mary Plaisted Austin (oil on board, 1941)
(Courtesy of Philipp Scholz Rittermann / San Diego History Center )

Local art champions and avid collectors Bram and Sandra Dijkstra recently announced they will donate 15 works of art to the San Diego History Center (SDHC). The donation comes on the heels of a successful exhibition of some of the couple’s massive art collection at the center, all of which centered on artists who lived and worked in San Diego. Titled “Collecting San Diego: Selections from the Dijkstra Fine Art Collection,” the exhibition will officially close on Jan. 15, with the remaining donated pieces remaining on display for a few more weeks.

“The History Center’s mandate covers all aspects of San Diego culture and history, but to his enormous credit, Bill Lawrence has established a permanent gallery for their San Diego collection,” says Sandra Dijkstra, referring to the SDHC’s president and CEO. “This is really extraordinary.”

“We are astounded at the generosity of Bram and Sandy,” Lawrence said in a statement. “The works they are donating align with our collecting focus of featuring the best works representing the San Diego region.”

The Dijkstras agree that the donated pieces, mostly paintings of varying styles that span the 20th century, were meant to fill holes in the center’s permanent collection, which includes more than 1,700 fine art pieces. The genesis of the “Collecting San Diego” exhibition began when the Dijkstras reached out to most of the major art institutions in San Diego County to explain that they were going to significantly “downsize” their collection, as well as their intention to lend or donate the most historically significant pieces. Lawrence was one of the first to reply to the letter, stating he was interested in showing a portion of them in an exhibition.

This led to Lawrence asking Bram Dijkstra to go into the center’s vault to assess the “historical and aesthetic” importance of what the center already had in its permanent collection. Once Dijkstra, an accomplished art historian, had completed this assessment, he and his wife were able to identify what was missing and decided that they would donate 15 contemporary art pieces to the center’s permanent collection.

“We love them, each and all, and we hate to lose any of them,” Sandra Dijkstra says. “We tried to make a selection that would best fill those holes.”

The permanent additions to the SDHC collection is one of a few recent and notable donations to local institutions. The Dijkstras have also recently donated pieces to the Oceanside Museum of Art, The Timken Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art and the Crocker Museum in Sacramento.

"Sun Goddess of the Computer Age" by Armando Nuñez (1997, mixed media and acrylic on wood panel)
(Philipp Scholz Rittermann / San Diego History Center)

The 15 donated paintings range in styles and aesthetics, from works from the Chicano Art Movement (Armando Nuñez’s “Sun Goddess of the Computer Age”) to modernist still life paintings (Mary Plaisted Austin’s “The Copper Pot (1)”). Taken all together, the donations give the viewer a sense of the range of styles that have been locally practiced. What’s more, some of the pieces speak to the history of the region itself, prominently seen in the nature-inspired works from artists such as Harry Sternberg (“The Seventh Wave”) and Herbert B. Turner (“Children’s Cove, La Jolla”).

“It’s one of the things that we hope, that with this show, it might help make people more interested in San Diego artists, because it goes through the range of San Diego painters through the century and up to the present,” Bram Dijkstra says. “Each one is quite wonderful.”

In addition to the “Collecting San Diego’’ exhibition, selections from the couple’s acquisitions will also be on display at “Art of the People: WPA-Era Paintings from the Dijkstra Collection.” The exhibition focuses on American representational pieces that were facilitated by government-sponsored WPA (Works Progress Administration) arts programs during the Great Depression. Curated from over 100 works from this era in their collection, the exhibition opens Jan. 29 at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento before heading to the Oceanside Museum of Art in June.

The Dijkstras see these types of exhibitions, as well as their donations, as bringing some much-deserved attention to overlooked regional artists. Their hope is that, with their donations, future generations will have the means to enjoy and discover these artists.

“The reason we have the paintings is because we love them,” Bram Dijkstra says, before Sandra adds that the couple are even “lobbying” the San Diego History Center to consider renaming the institution something like “The Museum of San Diego History and Art.”

“I’m happy about this because if places like the History Center don’t step in to collect some of the better San Diego painters,” Bram adds, “then nobody will know what San Diego painters were like 100 years from now.”

‘Collecting San Diego: Selections From the Dijkstra Fine Art Collection’

When: Through Jan. 15

Where: San Diego History Center, 1649 El Prado, Suite No. 3, Balboa Park

Admission: Donations are welcome

Phone: (619) 232-6203


Combs is a freelance writer.