San Diego Public Library's visual-arts program has a curator who just won't quit
Mark-Elliott Lugo is hastily vacuuming the carpet in the gallery space of the Taylor Library in Pacific Beach. A rather menial task for the founding curator of the San Diego Public Library's visual-arts program, perhaps, but it's telling-a subtle testament to his dedication and meticulous eye for detail.
Lugo is a wiry, energetic 56-year-old with a shaven head, dark goatee and piercing gray-green gaze. As he speaks, his eyebrows dance around his forehead and he shifts in his chair restlessly as he struggles to contain his enthusiasm. His exuberance is somewhat striking for a man his age, but it soon becomes clear that Lugo-who runs the entire visual-arts program single-handedly-couldn't do his job without it.
He mounts eight exhibitions a year, screening and choosing each artist personally, then frames, hangs, lights and labels each show. He also plans, produces and promotes every reception and organizes separate lecture events for the artists. When he's not opening exhibitions or raising money to fund them, he writes, hosts and co-produces Profiles, an interview show featuring local artists that airs regularly on City TV 24.
Most people would probably delegate Lugo's mountain of responsibilities to at least two full-time employees and a gaggle of interns, so while Lugo is understandably reluctant to reveal the exact number of hours he spends at work, he readily acknowledges that for him, every aspect of his job is a labor of love.
Mark's personal commitment is remarkable, says Lynn Schuette, an artist and founder of Sushi Performance and Visual Art, whose work has been displayed in multiple library branches.He's a completely dedicated professional that personally deserves a lot of credit. [The visual arts program] is his vision, and it's a great one.
Lugo, who is also a painter and was formerly an art critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune, was readying himself for the role of library assistant when the Pacific Beach Earl and Birdie Taylor library was being built in 1996. But as he watched the structure take shape, he couldn't shake the feeling that the building itself looked more like a contemporary art museum than a traditional library.
Lugo recalls thinking it would be shameful to display mediocre art in such a space, and decided an inaugural show by an established artist would more properly fit the occasion. He contacted internationally renowned multimedia artist Italo Scanga, who had been living in La Jolla for nearly two decades, and the library opened in April 1997 with a retrospective exhibition of Scanga's work that was, Lugo says,a resounding success.
Since then, Lugo has retrofitted the library's community meeting space to function as a fine-art gallery, taken on the official title of visual-arts curator and has made it his mission to exclusively showcase the work of local, mid-career artists.
There is an absolute, desperate need to give these artists a place to show their work, says Lugo, who believes many galleries place too much emphasis on young artists who have only just begun to develop their craft.
Some might wonder why Lugo spends so much time and effort putting up art in the library. After all, people go to the library to look for books, and who even bothers anymore now that so much information is just a quick Google search away?
Lugo would counter that the program has flourished so successfully that the library has become a destination for people who want to see art. But even beyond the artsy crowd, Lugo says hundreds of people still circulate through the library on a daily basis and make for the perfectcaptive audience.
That, says Lugo, is one of the best things about the program-its ability to bring art to a diverse cross-section of the public.
For example, Lugo says that homeless people-infamous for loitering in public libraries everywhere-are in fact some of the program's biggest supporters.
They wax eloquently on the virtues of contemporary art, he says.It's an escape for them, it takes them into another world.
Lugo credits library director Anna Tatar forsaving his job in the years when money has been especially tight, and for sharing his vision about the importance of bringing art to the public sphere.
When I became the director [in 1997] one of the things I thought was important was to energize the cultural programming that the library does, says Tatar.It's more than books and audiovisual materials. It's a community gathering place, and [the visual-arts program] helps to build community.
Cherishing his ability to cultivate renewed interest in visual arts and the library system simultaneously, Lugo passionately vows to keep workingway beyond retirement. He has visions of the new downtown library-should its construction ever be funded-becoming a major cultural center where people, arts and information can combine.
I'm in a position to really have an impact, says Lugo,but what I see in the future really blows this out of the water.
The new exhibition at the Pacific Beach Library, Two Sculptors: Joseph Bennett and Juliana Freitas, will run through Nov. 19 with an opening reception from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 15. The library is located at 4275 Cass St. 858-581-9934.