Out of the Ordinary | The Mingei Museum

By Sue Keller

The Mingei is like no other museum in the country,” says Martha Longenecker, founder and director of San Diego’s Mingei International Museum of Folk Art since its inception in 1974. “There are anthropological museums that emphasize cultures but not necessarily their art—the Mingei is an art museum. And there are many folk-art museums but none with the international scope of the Mingei.”

The Mingei (pronounced Min-gay) Museum’s motto is “art of the people, by the people, and for the people,” which describes its broad, all-inclusive spirit. “Our mission is to display traditional and contemporary folk arts and crafts from many different cultures, says Longenecker. “We present objects from everyday life and allow them to speak for themselves through line, color, and form.”

The Mingei International Museum of Folk Art, painting, southwest art.
The Mingei International Museum of Folk Art

The museum’s name is a fusion of two Japanese words: min (all people) and gei (art), which translates roughly as “arts of the people.” Inherent in mingei is the spirituality of the creative process as well as an appreciation for the finished product. Soetsu Yanagi, a revered Japanese scholar in the early 20th century, coined the word and, along with potters Shoji Hamada and Kanjiro Kawai, founded the Mingei Association of Japan and the first folk-art museum in Tokyo. The three men and their philosophy of mingei were the inspiration for the Mingei International Museum of Folk Art.

Over the past 20 years the Mingei Museum has brought a dazzling variety of world cultures to San Diego. It has opened the eyes and minds of visitors unaccustomed to seeing exhibits focusing on such objects as baskets, beads, or textiles. Mingei shows have been unique and varied: They have highlighted the folk arts of a single country such as Brazil, Korea, India, or Ethiopia; concentrated on a single art form such as toys, tapa cloth, or beads; and focused on a single artist such as Keisuke Serizawa, a Japanese Living Treasure. Sometimes the folk art of two disparate cultures is compared, as in a recent show titled Kindred Spirits: Eloquence of Function in American Shaker and Japanese Art of Daily Life, which illustrated that forms from entirely different cultures can be quite similar.

Martha Longenecker, director of the Mingei Museum, photographs, southwest art.
Martha Longenecker, director of the Mingei Museum

As often as possible, exhibitions are augmented by music, dance, demonstrations, lectures, and films. Most of these events are scheduled well in advance, but some are the result of serendipity. For example, Buddhist monks came to the Mingei Museum from their monastery in Dharamsala, India (the home of the Dalai Lama in exile), during a recent exhibition featuring Tibetan religious art. The monks created an enormous sand mandala displaying the symbolic cosmology of the world according to Tibetan Buddhist beliefs. They chanted in the gallery every day, not for the show but as part of their daily ritual. Their voices reverberated off the walls, giving fortunate visitors who arrived during this time a rare and unforgettable experience.

The Mingei Museum is located in Balboa Park, the site of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The cluster of lavishly ornamented stucco buildings erected for the expo was scheduled for demolition after it closed, but at the time no one could decide who would lead the project. Thus the buildings remained, and many, including the Mingei, have been either renovated or rebuilt in a style similar to the original structures.

Today Balboa Park is a nexus of local culture. It is home to four art museums, six specialty museums, five theaters, an art center, and the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Flower-filled gardens, splashing fountains, and serene reflecting pools connect these institutions in an area that is now one of the city’s greatest treasures.

The Mingei Museum is actually in its second incarnation. In 1977 a generous real-estate developer gave Longenecker a 20-year lease on a 6,000-square-foot space in a local shopping center. The following year the first Mingei Museum opened its doors to immediate, enthusiastic acceptance. It flourished there for 18 years until moving to its present site in 1996.

Tiger from the museum s inaugural exhibition, American Expressions of Liberty, courtesy of the Dentzel Carousel Menagerie., sculpture, southwest art.
Tiger from the museum’s inaugural exhibition, American Expressions of Liberty, courtesy of the Dentzel Carousel Menagerie.

The handsome interior of the new Mingei—beech floors, white walls, skylights, beautifully rendered details—was designed by David Rinehart of Anshen+Allen, Los Angeles. Rinehart created simple, comfortable spaces that perfectly suit the museum’s focus on the humanity of the objects it displays.

The new facility is almost seven times the size of the first Mingei Museum. With 41,000 square feet, there are spaces on two floors where up to four exhibits can be displayed simultaneously. In addition there are two theaters, an expanded gift shop, exhibit preparation areas, a large research library, and a storage area large enough to hold the permanent collection.

The museum’s collections are both broad and deep, with more than 10,000 pieces from 80 countries. The largest of the collections comprise folk art from India and Japan; the Ethiopian, Mexican, and Palestinian collections are significant as well.

Longenecker’s own story is as interesting as that of the museum she founded. A university professor for 35 years, she is also a ceramist, painter, and graphic designer whose life has been shaped by a series of fortuitous occurrences that nudged her career away from its anticipated path.

In high school Longenecker wanted to be a painter but accidentally enrolled in a leather-tooling class. Her facility with the craft led to a summer apprenticeship in a Russian leather studio, an experience that she believes created her lifelong interest in diverse cultures. Next a college class in ceramics sparked Longenecker’s interest in handmade objects. It was during her post-graduate study in ceramics that Longenecker met original Mingei founders Yanagi and Hamada, who were visiting from Japan at the time. The chance meeting spurred further studies, trips to Japan, and a growing urge to bring the spirit of mingei to San Diego.

Today Longenecker has made her  dream of an international folk art museum come true. Although quiet and unassuming, she is a force to be reckoned with, and her soft manner belies a will of steel and fierce determination. One can only wonder what the future will bring for this remarkable woman and her museum.

Current and Upcoming Exhibitions:

Niki de Saint Phalle: Insider/ Outsider—World-Inspired Art, through January 29, 1999…. Dowry: Central European Painted Furniture and Textiles, November 1998-Spring 1999…. Shamans, Gods, and Mythic Beasts: Colombian Gold and Ceramics in Antiquity, January 29-April 11, 1999. For more information write or call the Mingei International Museum of Folk Art, Plaza de Panama, 1439 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA 92101, 619.239-0003.

Featured in September 1998