Gaidi Finnie reaches for a thick, white binder on top of a file cabinet in his office at Bayview Baptist Church in Encanto. He opens it to reveal years' worth of historic documents and other memorabilia from the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art.
"These are some of the original shows here," he says, flipping to a page of old exhibition fliers and invitations. "This one here is one I was involved in, Black Cowboys: Reconstructing an American Myth, an exhibition of photographs by Tony Gleaton. We did that one at the B Street Pier, Downtown, back in 1997."
A quick glance through the rest of the salvaged history makes one thing clear—the museum's founder, Shirley Day Williams, was wholeheartedly committed to putting on high-caliber exhibitions of fine art made by African-Americans. And she did so without having a permanent place to stage the shows.
"That was one thing that Shirley was definitely known for," Finnie says. "She would only do really high-quality stuff. She was insistent that whatever we put up was really, really good."
Williams launched the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art in 1989, with the help of a small group of volunteers. Conceptualized as a museum without walls, the organization thrived for a decade without a permanent home by partnering with other arts groups and holding exhibitions in venues around the city. Shortly after the museum staged its 10th-anniversary exhibition in 1999, Williams died and the museum essentially died with her. It wasn't until last February that Finnie decided to revive it.
Finnie's the chief operating officer at Bayview Baptist Church, but he has a long background in the arts. He spent a few years at a fine-art gallery in La Jolla before moving to the Museum of Photographic Arts, where he eventually became the director. He served on the Port of San Diego's Public Art Committee and, most recently, was the managing director of North Coast Repertory Theatre before taking his job at the church three years ago.
Bayview is a big church with an onsite school, large chapel, administrative offices and another huge building—dubbed the M.L. King Center—that was once intended to be a gym but has served as extra event space. Finnie saw the building's lofty ceiling and sprawling square footage and almost immediately envisioned it as a potential home for the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art.
"I thought, man, we could put something here that might work, because a lot of time museums don't need much," he says.
On Feb. 1, 2014, Finnie relaunched the museum with In Our Lifetime, a photo exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. In October, he followed that show with The Question Bridge: Black Males, a provocative contemporary video installation that presented viewers with an honest dialog about what it's like being a black male in America.
Despite the limitations of running a makeshift museum tucked into a corner of a church building, exhibitions and the accompanying programming—film screenings, lectures, etc.—were well-executed and popular.
"I was really impressed by the shows," says Marilyn Rees, who signed on as a volunteer for the museum when Finnie decided to breathe new life into it. "This is a huge challenge, but Gaidi took it on and has just run with it... Black culture in this region is present, but it isn't always as obvious or put forward as it could be, and the type of discussions that Gaidi is offering are just healthy and even necessary."
When the museum first reopened, Finnie thought its permanent home would be at the church. He hired consultants and collected quotes from contractors, settling on a price tag of roughly $800,000—the cost of adding lighting, climate control, security and other elements necessary to get the space up to museum standards. In the future, he'd like to be able to borrow African-American art from institutions like the Smithsonian, but he can't do that unless the venue meets the strict requirements for showing valuable fine art.
"Maintaining the quality of the work we show in our exhibitions is of the utmost importance," says Finnie, who's started considering locations that are better equipped to show and store art. "We want to make sure that the level of art we've shown in the past stays at that level."
Heading into the second year of the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art's revival, Finnie's decided to be conservative. He's put the costly plans for rehabbing the church's M.L. King Center on a backburner and is instead continuing as a museum without walls that survives with partnerships and pop-ups.
This month, the museum is collaborating with the Mingei International Museum by participating in and hosting events related to the Balboa Park institution's current Black Dolls exhibition (see the end of article for details). And in August, the museum will open an exhibition at San Diego State University's Downtown Gallery, featuring original work by Jonathan Green alongside pieces from the well-known artist's personal collection. Finnie and his team of board members and volunteers are working to raise the estimated $100,000 it'll cost to ship Green's art, pay for insurance, host an elegant opening and cover other costs associated with putting on a museum-quality exhibition.
"So, we're right in the middle of just hustling, trying to raise the money," he says, pointing to a long and impressive list of corporate sponsors who've pitched in for shows in the past. "We won't commit to something unless we know we can raise the money to do it right, because we're not doing cheap exhibits."
Finnie says all the funds currently being raised go directly toward exhibitions and programming. He acts as the executive director but doesn't take a salary, and he says the museum is powered by its volunteers. Running the museum, he says, can at times feel like an incredible amount of work, but his passion for art and the enthusiastic response from not only the black community but also the wider San Diego community has inspired him to keep going.
"We really feel like we can reach the whole region," he says. "It's important because it just feels like the African-American culture is just diminishing in this area... So far, we've been humbled, if you will, by the comments from the community saying, 'We really need this. We really were missing this, and I'm so glad you're doing this.' So, those conversations have been very powerful. People are excited about what we're doing."
Gaidi Finnie, executive director of the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art, will help lead a discussion after a screening of the documentary Why Do You Have Black Dolls? at the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday Feb. 25. From 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 26, Finnie will screen the film again at the M.L. King Center at Bayview Baptist Church (6134 Benson Ave. in Encanto). Get details at facebook.com/sdaamfa.
From 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, March 14, the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art and Mingei will host a discussion, Black Art, Memorabilia and Collectibles, focusing on the responses evoked by historical art objects depicting African Americans. From 4 to 6 p.m., the program will shift into A Tribute to Our Daughters, an opportunity for proud dads to express how they feel about their daughters through poetry, song, a letter or just a few words. Those who want to participate should contact Finnie at email@example.com or 619-262-8384.