The San Diego Museum of Art has an eclectic collection, housed in a beautiful Spanish-style not-too-big building, located in San Diego’s Balboa Park. The Museum holds a broad collection of Arts of the Americas, Spanish old master paintings, Asian and European art. And oddly enough, one of the strongest collections of German Expressionism in the United States.
The original inspiration for a permanent public art gallery can be traced to the Panama-California International Exposition, held in Balboa Park during 1915–1916. The Exposition was organized to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal and to promote San Diego as a seaport. Among its numerous displays representing various industries and products was a prominent exhibition of fine arts featuring European old masters, American art, and works by California and San Diego artists. The public response to the art exhibition convinced civic leaders and prominent local artists that San Diego needed its own fine arts gallery and collection.
Planning for the new museum began in 1922. A prominent site on the north side of Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama was secured. As “The Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego”, the museum officially opened its doors on February 28, 1926.
The architect William Templeton Johnson (1877–1950) designed and constructed the new art gallery. The Spanish Colonial–style architecture from the 1915 Exposition suggested the style for Johnson’s design. Johnson however, went one step further and looked directly to sixteenth-century Spanish Renaissance models for inspiration. For the building’s exterior, they borrowed motifs from the Cathedral of Valladolid, Spain, and the façade of the University of Salamanca, Spain, while for the interior they adapted features of the Hospital de la Santa Cruz in Toledo, Spain. Also enhancing the façade with the addition of sculptural elements including life-sized sculptures of Spanish Old Master painters Velázquez, Murillo, and Zurbarán as well as heraldic devices and the coats-of-arms of Spain, the United States, California, and San Diego.