For nearly 30 years, Rob Sidner of the Mingei International Museum has been a champion of the finely crafted art of everyday objects, the art of the people.
“I love all kinds of visual arts,” said Sidner, “but there’s no doubt that my first love is the arts of everyday life. These things are so witty, so different from things deliberately done to answer political or social issues. Dr. Yanagi (Japanese art critic and philosopher Soetsu Yanagi, who coined the term mingei) used to say that these things become your friends over time. They were made with good materials. They were made with care.
Sidner’s affection for the art of commonplace has only grown since he joined the Mingei at Balboa Park, initially as membership coordinator, in 1993. Today, after 29 years with the museum, the last 16 as executive director and CEO, Sidner retires, effective June 30. He will be succeeded by Jessica Hanson York, Deputy Director and Director of Advancement at Mingei.
Sidner resigns after overseeing what he calls his “No.” 1,” a $55 million restoration of the museum founded by Martha Longenecker that celebrates and preserves folk art, craft and design from around the world. The Mingei reopened last September after the completion of the three-year project, a partnership between the museum and local architecture/design firm Luce et Studio. “It gives the museum the ability to expand and find new audiences,” Sidner said. “It’s terribly exciting.”
Sidner originally planned to retire in mid-October 2018, but Mingei’s board of directors led by Maureen Pecht King asked him to stay on through the restoration project. “I said I wouldn’t miss it,” he recalls.
Now, he said, the time has come. “I loved my job, I absolutely loved it,” Sidner said. “But I’m going to be 79 and it’s time to change direction. It’s important. It’s a good thing. Institutions can do well with appropriate changes.
The new chef, Hanson York, said it was hard to imagine Sidner not being at the museum. “Rob is an amazing human being. He’s such a special person,” she said. “His optimism, his genuine passion for the work we do here, his concern for the people was very instructive to me. I think it is rare to meet a leader who operates from such a humble place .
Sidner’s beginnings in Southern California were humble. He opened an art gallery in Mission Hills, Cable Gallery, shortly after moving to San Diego from Sandusky, Ohio in the summer of 1991. Although he was unable to keep the gallery going, Sidner met Martha Longenecker. What started as an invitation to volunteer at the Mingei quickly grew into a paid position at the museum as a Membership Coordinator.
“Martha Longenecker was a true visionary,” Sidner said. “She gave her whole heart and soul to make Mingei take off and develop it.
“I worked closely with Martha for 12 years. I was called assistant director from the time we moved (to Balboa Park from University Towne Center) in 1996. I was really his assistant rather than his assistant director.
After a brief stint as acting director of the museum, during which Sidner said he did not feel ready to take the reins of Mingei, he was appointed executive director by the board in 2006. Already 12 years old, I knew how to honor Martha and respect her. It allowed me and the staff to move forward together.
“It took us a whole boat to take his place.”
According to Sidner, his vision for the Mingei as executive director mirrored that of Longenecker. “I think I picked up a lot on what Martha had done,” he said. “I had developed an affection for these arts of everyday life. I knew Mingei before I was here, but my understanding and appreciation grew tremendously with each exhibit we worked on.
There are said to be many in which Sidner was closely involved and fondly remembered. One will open at the beginning of his employment at the museum, in 1995: “Kindred Spirits: The Eloquence of Function in American Shaker and Japanese Arts of Daily Life.”
“It was one of the first that I was deeply involved in the preparation for,” Sidner said. “I’ve always loved Shakers and grown in my appreciation of mingei, so the coming together of the two things was just wonderful. I was able very soon after this show opened to go to Japan for the first time and connect these two sides of the world, these two parts of our history.
Sidner also singled out “True Blue: Indigo, Turquoise, Cobalt and Lapis Lazuli” from 2012.
“It’s a topic that Mary and I have talked about many times,” he said. “I think the idea came from her originally: a show about blue. I realized it was indigo, of course. Then I decided to add cobalt and lapis and turquoise. It was very fun. I drew from our collection as much as possible, then I supplemented it with some borrowings.
A 2015 exhibition Sidner curated, “Made in America: Craft Icons of the 50 States,” grew out of a visit to Hawaii. “I saw all these wonderful outrigger canoe paddles that were exquisitely beautiful,” he recalled, “and thought, ‘What a great symbol for Hawaii. I wonder if I can find iconic items of craftsmanship that would be expressive in the minds of many people from different states? »
He did too: one for each state in the United States and two for most. “It was a huge job,” recalls Sidner, “but it turned out pretty well.”
Naturally, Sidner has a soft spot for what he now calls his “swan song,” the ongoing (through July) “Humble Spirit/Priceless Art” exhibition he curated. Its theme is well in its title.
“I started from the idea that so many people, when they come to a museum, naturally want to ask how much something costs,” Sidner said. “Unfortunately the only way most of us know today how to value things is by what they cost. I ask on this show ‘How do we value things?’ I decided to search our collection for things that cost little or nothing and were made from the most common materials.
“It’s a way of saying it’s not about how expensive things are, it’s about what people have done with the materials, the soul they put into them.”
As Sidner retires, those who know him well pay their respects. Mingei Chairman of the Board, King, said Sidner “gave the very essence of his being to make Mingei the world-class institution it is today. Rob was a creative director , steadfast and beloved during his long and productive tenure.
Jennifer Luce, Luce’s director and studio, calls Sidner “the real deal.” A man of great honor who fights like hell for what is right in the world, especially important in this time of global challenge. His friendship for me and for so many others is priceless.
As he embarks on a new chapter in his life, Sidner says he doesn’t have “completely defined plans yet.” He will spend some time traveling, first to the redwoods to hike, then in the fall to Italy for three months: “A month in Rome in September, Naples in October and Sicily in November”, a- he specified. “Following the sun.”
Follow him after leaving the bright future of the Mingei International Museum.
Coddon is a freelance writer.