Rethinking Common Art

Portrait of USD alumna Jessica Hanson York


Walking among the glass vitrines inside the newly renovated Mingei International Museum, Jessica Hanson York ’13 (MA) is passionate as she explains what makes the art collection unique. 

“I get so excited when someone comes in here and sees an object behind glass and they say, ‘I grew up with one of those on my grandmother’s counter.’ It makes them rethink the things that surround them,” says Hanson York, a graduate of the School of Leadership and Educational Studies (SOLES) Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management and new head of the Mingei museum. 

This summer, Hanson York took over for Rob Sidner, who retired after serving as executive director for 16 years. This is an exciting time for the Mingei, which reopened in September 2021 following a multi-year $47 million renovation aimed at transforming the museum, which is housed in one of Balboa Park’s original buildings. 

“We’re on a good track,” says Hanson York. “Certainly, we want to be more proactive and accountable with how we work with groups in our community to ensure that our exhibitions are relevant, meaningful and reflective of who we’re serving.” 

The museum collects, preserves and exhibits folk art, craft and design from all eras and cultures of the world. Mingei is a Japanese word that was coined by the philosopher Yanagi Sōetsu, which translates to “art of the people.” 

“At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, Yanagi was concerned that people would lose appreciation for folk crafts, the beautiful pieces made by unknown craftsmen, so he set out to create the Mingei Movement — to celebrate, preserve and ensure the long future of the making of these objects,” explains Hanson York.

“We’re trying to get everyone to slow down, appreciate what really matters, and to think about the elements of an object that can have a more meaningful duration in their lives.” 

The Mingei’s collection is vast. It includes more than 25,000 objects from more than 140 countries. Among the collection are textiles, ceramics, jewelry, toys, tools, furniture, ceremonial and ritual objects — some contemporary and others dating back to indigenous cultures. “It is truly expansive,” she says. 

Hanson York joined the museum in 2011. She has more than 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector. “Working in an art museum is pretty wonderful,” she says. “I get to drive into a beautiful park every day and then I walk into an art museum — a space that celebrates beauty and creativity.” 

Hanson York says her career has allowed her to work as part of the area she lives in. “I want to have an impact on my community and the quality of life,” she says. 

A Connecticut native and a graduate of Emerson College, she moved to San Diego in 2005. She’s worked at the New Children’s Museum, the San Diego Museum Council, the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture and at KPBS. 

At USD, Hanson York learned both the practical skills and the academic context needed to succeed. “The program had a tremendous impact on my personal and professional growth,” she says. “It also helped me build connections with a network of like-minded nonprofit leaders in the region, many of whom I still reach out to and collaborate with.” 

Hanson York is also an adjunct professor at USD. Together with fellow alumna Patricia Saraniero ’07 (EdD), she co-created and serves as lead instructor of the Arts and Culture Leadership Certificate, a three-course graduate-level certificate offered through SOLES. 

“We saw an opportunity with the nonprofit leadership graduate program to bring a specialized focus in,” says Hanson York. “It’s a fantastic program offered as both a certificate program and a specialization within the master’s program.” 

As executive director, Hanson York leads a staff of more than 50 and oversees a museum with an annual operating budget of roughly $5 million and that serves 120,000 visitors yearly through admission, programs, events, educational outreach and other programs.

“There is a huge diversity with how we connect with people, the types of audiences we serve and engage with, and the type of art that we show,” she explains. 

Founded in 1974, the Mingei is a relatively young museum. But in recent years, its mission has become more expansive. The revitalized space was designed to be welcoming across demographics. “Historically, we’ve tried to look at the assets and knowledge within our own community and how that relates back to our collection and opportunities to share stories that can also highlight San Diego communities.” 

To continue growing in 2022 and beyond, the museum had to become a comfortable place. The ground floor is free to all and features artwork from the museum’s collection, a restaurant and
a gift shop. The open concept ties the museum together with the adjacent Plaza de Panama in the front and the Spanish-style Alcázar Gardens behind. 

Hanson York believes strongly in the museum’s purpose, particularly when more and more goods are mass produced and disposable. “When we think about art of the people, we are often thinking about objects that we may be taking for granted in our daily lives,” she says. 

“Think about your favorite mug and how it feels in your hand, or a favorite family quilt that’s been handed down. These objects are useful, they have meaning, and they add beauty and joy to our lives. We want to highlight that human creativity, celebrate it, and in an ideal world, spark that creativity.” — Matthew Piechalak 

Image courtesy of Mingei International Museum.

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