Andrew Utt: The making of a museum director
Utt is the executive director of the Institute of Contemporary Art San Diego
Once upon a time there was a boy named Andrew Utt who grew up in an art-centered family in San Diego. His parents enrolled him in the School of Creative and Performing Arts and he went on to study visual arts at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. But he discovered what interested him most was doing the behind-the-scenes work that made exhibitions possible, from helping with installations to handling databases and payrolls. And Utt began thinking about how to recruit adventurous artists and donors and come up with creative ways to make the business of art pay off for everyone—including the general public. After college, there was one thing he wanted to do: go to Paris. But first, he had to make some money, so he worked odd jobs in galleries which allowed him to stay in Paris for several months, visiting museums and galleries and having a fine time.
When Utt returned to the Bay Area, he began working with a woman who put together exhibitions about the environment and brought them to places like the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo and the Field Museum in Chicago. Knowing something about business structure and logistics, he soon became Head of Operations, traveling with the shows. And when her project morphed into an organization called Art Works for Change, Utt spent two years helping her work out the business details. He was good at fundraising, sharing a vision with people, and finding ways for them to get involved.
“Someday you’ll be a museum director,” she said. The thought had crossed his mind. But first, he wanted another vacation. It was 2008 and the U.S. was in the midst of a major recession, but Colombia, in the heart of South America, was doing very well. So Utt went off to Bogotá with an artist friend who spoke Spanish, which he did not. On their first dinner out, the friend chatted up a young woman at the next table and ended up leaving with her. Utt began talking with the bartender, who turned out to be an American. She invited him to a party at her place, and when he walked in the door, he met Carolina, the woman who would become his wife.
Utt continued working on art projects around the world, learned to speak Spanish, and he and Carolina collaborated on creating a video film festival with a gallerist in Buenos Aires. They also opened a photography gallery in Bogotá, but their most life-changing collaboration was having a child, Olivia, and beginning to consider the problems of smog, schooling, and safety. In San Diego, schools were free, they could live near the ocean, and he could try to find new ways of creating community through art. So in 2015, they decided to come “home.”
It was time to think about museum directing and, for that, Utt needed a master’s degree. Harvard’s Museum Studies Master’s Degree Program allowed him to work from home while he took various positions at museums and galleries around San Diego, including SDAI, the San Diego Art Institute in Balboa Park. In 2019, he became executive director of Lux Museum in Encinitas, and, in 2021, he managed to merge the two venues into the Institute of Contemporary Art San Diego—ICA Central and ICA North—committed to presenting international and local artists who offer unusual ways of looking at the world and make people think. Best of all, admission would always be free.
Even the pandemic couldn’t slow Utt down. He kept searching for new artists, new ideas, and new collaborations. His goal for ICA San Diego in the coming year: “To Be Everywhere for Everyone,” bringing cutting-edge art into community parks and public spaces.
“We’re here for you!” he says. “All you have to do is show up!”
What’s Up This Month at ICA North
1550 S El Camino Real, Encinitas
—Narsiso Martinez: Rethinking Essentials (on view through June 4)
The artist, who spent summers picking produce to pay for his college education, turns farmworkers’ labor into works of art.
—Edra Soto: Graft (on view through Aug. 6)
Born in Puerto Rico, Soto presents different perspectives of her native island in this site-specific installation. Meet and chat with the artist-in-residence on Saturday and Sunday afternoons through May 21.
—C U Saturday: March 18, 4-8 p.m. The first in a monthly series of community events, including artist conversations, music, and family-friendly activities.
For more about events, exhibits, and classes at ICA North and ICA Central, see www.icasandiego.org
Sidebar: What is ICA?
The ICA concept had its beginnings in 1948 when the Boston Museum of Modern Art changed its name to the Institute of Contemporary Art, centering on a mission of championing new artists and encouraging innovative approaches. Their initial statement: “The Institute of Contemporary Art strives to share the pleasures of reflection, inspiration, provocation, and imagination that contemporary art offers through public access to art, artists, and the creative process.” In addition to San Diego, museums following this model can now be found in Miami, Philadelphia, and other cities around the U.S.
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