Admission: I am a car guy ... well, airplanes too. I am a member of the San Diego Automotive Museum and for several years I was on the board of directors. I resigned two years ago when I determined that the Auto Museum board was not moving forward. Two years later, the Auto Museum is still stuck, basically just treading water and surviving.
Meanwhile, I am now a volunteer and docent at the San Diego Air and Space Museum and after three years with the Air Museum, I am familiar with a well-managed, successful, exciting and profitable operation.
The reason I write this article is to fill in a few details as a follow-up to a Jan. 8 column by Logan Jenkins in U-T San Diego in which he mentioned attempts to open discussions for a merger of the Auto Museum and the Air and Space Museum.
Letters to the editor followed. One was from Jeff Quinn, former executive director of the Hall of Champions, who wrote Jan. 14: “The Automotive Museum would make a tragic mistake if it does not investigate the proposal by the Air and Space Museum.”
I am a fan of museums: art museums, Western museums (like the Autry National Center in Los Angeles), auto, and airplane museums (Planes of Fame in Chino and the Western Antique Auto and Air Museum in Oregon). Combining autos, motorcycles, airplanes and perhaps boats in a transportation museum is a natural. And it would be larger draw for the south end of Balboa Park, where 45 percent of visitors enter the park.
The Auto Museum has always had one great problem: at 20,000 square feet, it is simply too small. When the city granted the lease 25 years ago, one provision was that the one acre immediately behind the museum was to be developed to make it significantly larger.
This has never happened, mostly due to museum leadership that has driven away the prosperous and influential patrons a museum needs to prosper. There are private car collectors in town who have committed to investing in a larger facility — but not the Auto Museum as it is now managed. They see participation as an investment for the future of Balboa Park and the city, not just money to keep the lights on.
The Air Museum presented a plan last summer to the Auto Museum Board of Directors to add 83,000 square feet and combine the two museums. The purpose was simply to open discussions into the feasibility of merging into one transportation museum, thereby vastly increasing the floor space of both museums. This idea was supported by several wealthy car enthusiasts and collectors, as well as the Legler Benbough Foundation, an important benefactor to Balboa Park.
After a very close vote, the Auto Museum board decided not to enter into discussions with the Air Museum. Almost immediately, about half of board members who voted in favor of the discussions were asked to resign or were removed from the board.
How and why would six or seven unpaid individuals kill a proposal just to consider a worthwhile improvement in Balboa Park?
Most of the board members who remain are the same short-sighted curmudgeons who shot down the same idea two years ago. Apparently, the current reasons are vague unfounded suspicions about Air Museum finances, a fear that auto board members would lose their positions (so what?) and that it would have an adverse effect on five or six Auto Museum employees.
These are not valid reasons to stop progress. Frankly, from my personal experience, few of the older Board Members do anything but enjoy a free lunch once a month and pontificate about the need to find rich patrons.
Staff members of the Auto Museum are fine people who deserve the opportunity to advance in a much larger organization, with guaranteed jobs and improved health care benefits. The addition of 83,000 square feet would create many job opportunities.
1915 — an idea
I have an idea that could benefit both museums and perhaps lead to eventually combining the two into an Auto and Air Museum, and maybe eventually adding the long-closed Starlight Theater.
Since the planning for a 100-year celebration of Balboa Park is apparently not progressing very well, how about this? Use the Auto Museum for an opening venue to establish the 1915 anniversary.
Use cars, trucks and airplanes of the period to set the tone with large murals on the walls of the Panama Exposition with the buildings and midway. Include pictures of airships over the exposition. Have employees become re-enactors to play the parts of 1915 citizens and tour guides. Celebrate Rockwell Field as an Army Air Force base and revisit how the raid to catch Poncho Villa was flown by pilots from San Diego in 1916.
Unfortunately, the proof of experienced leadership of the San Diego Automotive Museum is negative. There has been no growth in 25 years and potential benefactors with resources and influence have been driven away. The responsibility of any board of directors is to secure the future of the institution. The experience of 25 years is proof that a new direction is necessary: a merger with the Air and Space Museum.
The merger and growth of an Auto/Air Museum would enhance Balboa Park. This obstruction of progress by a few individuals needs to be considered by everyone involved in the management of Balboa Park, as well as the mayor and City Council.
Carrico is a San Diego attorney and can be emailed at email@example.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.