Stroke of Genius

Derrick Cartwright


After almost 15 years away from academia, renowned art historian and museum director Derrick Cartwright has returned to his roots at USD. And his homecoming has caused a stir among the entire visual arts community in and around San Diego.

“He’s one of the very best,” declared his longtime friend and collaborator Hugh Davies, director of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art. “I’ve been telling people for 20 years that he’s the best museum director of his generation.”

Cartwright — who began his career at USD as an assistant professor in 1992 — left the university in 1998 for a string of successful museum directorships in France, Dartmouth College, the San Diego Museum of Art and, most recently, the Seattle Art Museum. Cartwright has returned to a position created especially for him. He will serve as director of university galleries and professor of practice, overseeing and managing USD’s four galleries and their collections, and teaching several undergraduate art history courses through the Department of Art, Architecture + Art History.

“I’m very excited to be back at USD,” he says. “I hope by making this move back to academia I can reconnect with the art that was really the reason I got into art history originally.”

That pressing need to get closer to art itself was fueled by Cartwright’s most recent stint in Seattle. His two-year tenure began at one of the most difficult times in recent memory for museums in this country, and he found himself spending much of his time dealing with an unexpected budget crisis and taking steps to re-stabilize the museum. “We did what we had to do to keep the museum going, but it was really challenging. But our Picasso exhibition, ‘Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musee National Picasso, Paris,’ brought in 400,000 visitors in a single year. That was the highest attendance for a museum exhibition in the United States, outside of New York,” recalls Cartwright.

“We ended last year with the biggest surplus the museum had had in many years,” he says. “I decided after that I was ready for a change.”

Seattle’s loss became San Diego’s gain. By all accounts, Cartwright is much more thana brilliant scholar and masterful administrator. Colleagues, artists, academics and students respect and admire him on a personal level. He makes friends wherever he goes.

“It’s a huge catch for USD in that respect,” says Malcolm Warner, director of the Laguna Art Museum. The two are currently collaborating on an exhibit that will feature the works of American painter Robert Henri. “When people think of Derrick, they think of the most thoughtful kind of museum directorship. He’s a man of great integrity and has a supreme reputation among his peers and colleagues.”

During his time away, Cartwright curated a USD exhibit with the help of three undergraduate students. “Character and Crisis: American Printmaking, 1920-1950,” is on display at the Robert and Karen Hoehn Family Galleries in Founders Hall through Dec. 14, 2012.

His return to campus in an official role is a thrill for his colleagues. “He was absolutely a brilliant professor and scholar,” says Fine Arts Professor Sally Yard, who first helped recruit him to the university more than two decades ago. “He’s always been very deeply committed to the role of museums in the life of a city, a community and a university.”

Cartwright believes his new position will keep him true to that commitment, and give him the leeway to channel his passions in positive and productive ways. “On a practical basis, the job is to take the university’s separate gallery spaces and bring an overarching vision to them,” he says. “I’m very eager to get back into that mindset where it’s less about finding resources to keep the doors open, and more about sharing why art is such an important part of our lives.”

Cartwright also hopes to build lasting and reciprocal relationships with San Diego’s art museums and the visual arts community as a whole, so that USD might occasionally borrow pieces of art for display in its own gallery spaces. Similarly, he hopes to send more USD students afield for practical internships in the community. “The university needs to integrate itself well, and be a good collaborator with these other institutions,” he says.

That shouldn’t be a problem. Cartwright already has an excellent reputation within the local arts world, dating back to his five years as director of the San Diego Museum of Art. He is known among his peers for welcoming partnership and working openly and collaboratively on projects and exhibits. “He’s such a bright colleague and so generous,” says Davies. “To have his intellectual horsepower back in town is very good news.” — Karen Gross

USD houses four exhibition spaces: the Hoehn Family Galleries, the May Gallery, the Fine Arts Galleries and the Exhibit Hall. To learn more, go to

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