By Bruce Kamerling
Curator of Collections
One of the biggest thrills a museum curator can have is to obtain a highly significant object that fills a major gap in the museum’s collection. Such is the case with La Madre Santísima de La Luz, a Spanish Colonial painting by Luis Mena, acquired by the San Diego History Center in 1993. The Serra Museum, built on Presidio Hill by George Marston as a memorial to Fra Junípero Serra, has never had an object that dates to the period of Father Serra’s establishment of the first mission in California in 1769.
In 1978, John Nolan published an account of his search for and identification of many of the paintings and sculptures that had been the original decorations of the San Diego presidio chapel and mission church. Nolan’s research revealed that a large percentage of these works of art were now in the church and museum at Mission San Luis Rey.
When plans were being made to renovate some of the exhibits at the Serra Museum, Serra staff members Mark Allen and Eleanor Neely contacted Mary Whalen, curator of the museums at missions San Diego and San Luis Rey, to see if we might borrow some surplus objects from their mission period collections. Arrangements were made for Allen, Neely, and myself to meet with Whalen at Mission San Luis Rey in April of 1992.
Having reviewed Nolan’s book before our visit, I earnestly hoped that one of the original pieces from the presidio chapel or mission church might be available for our use. I was particularly interested in the painting of Our Lady of Light, one of only two paintings (the other being a St. Didacus [San Diego] now at the San Diego mission) to survive the destruction by fire of the original mission church during an Indian raid on the evening of November 4, 1775. Unfortunately, this very important painting was in poor condition having been almost completely overpainted at some time since 1930.
While reviewing the mission collection with Mary Whalen, I brought up the possibility of the Historical Society funding the restoration of La Madre in exchange for the long-term loan of the painting to the Serra Museum. She seemed open to discussing this idea so I brought up the concept to our Collections and Acquisitions committee as they would be the ones to make the final recommendation to the Historical Society’s board of directors. The committee members were enthusiastic and urged me to proceed with negotiations.
First, it would be necessary to have the painting carefully examined in order to prepare a condition report and treatment proposal with cost estimate. I contacted Betsy Court, chief conservator of paintings at the Balboa Art Conservation Center (BACC), and arrangements were made to have the painting thoroughly examined. Because of the extensive overpaint, X-rays were taken to ensure that enough original paint remained to make restoration worthwhile. The X-rays revealed that, although there were numerous small losses, much of the original paint survived. Unfortunately, because of the size of the painting (62″ x 57″) and time needed to remove the extensive overpaint and in-paint the losses, the conservation estimate came in at $21,000.
Although this figure was very discouraging, I decided to continue negotiations with San Luis Rey believing that the conservation of this painting would be an excellent candidate for grant funding. Among the possible arrangements discussed were dual-ownership, long-term loan, and outright acquisition of the painting by the Historical Society.
Finally, all parties agreed that the Historical Society would acquire the painting for its permanent collection in exchange for funding another less costly conservation project at San Luis Rey. The painting chosen for this exchange was a large Wedding Feast at Cana attributed to the School of Murillo which had a proposed treatment estimate of $6,500. This expenditure was approved at the May 20, 1993, meeting of the board of directors and was funded from the Mrs. William A. Edwards Curatorial Fund which is restricted for the acquisition or conservation of objects for the permanent collection.
Once the painting was acquired, the process of trying to obtain funding for its conservation began. James M. Vaughan, then Executive Director of the San Diego Historical Society contacted Tim Whalen at the Getty Grant Program to see if the treatment of the painting might qualify for matching funds. Whalen was enthusiastic about the project and encouraged the Historical Society to submit an application. I filed the completed application with the Getty on October 8, 1993. At the same time, I prepared a grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to fund the matching portion of the project.
The Getty grant proposal was favorably received and unanimously approved by their grants committee. Unfortunately, the project was rejected by the NEA. In June of 1994, BACC announced to its member institutions that $5,000 in matching funds were being offered by the Thomas C. Ackerman Foundation for conservation projects, the total cost of which would be at least $10,000. An application was filed in September, 1994, which was received favorably by the Ackerman Foundation. The remaining $6,200 necessary to cover the full cost of treatment was funded from the Mrs. William A. Edwards curatorial fund.
Although the negotiations and funding process were lengthy and at times discouraging, La Madre Santísima de La Luz can now be enjoyed in near original condition by the thousands of visitors to the Serra Museum. The Historical Society is deeply grateful to Mission San Luis Rey for its spirit of co-operation, and to the Getty Grant Program and Ackerman Foundation for confirming the importance of this project. One of the most significant works of art in California’s Spanish Colonial history is now prepared for a secure future.
Bruce Kamerling is Curator of Collections for the San Diego Historical Society. He has written several published books and articles on local art and architecture, including 100 Years of Art in San Diego (1991) and Irving J. Gill, Architect (1993), both published by the San Diego Historical Society. Mr. Kamerling sat on the City of San Diego’s Historic Site Board from 1983 to 1988 and served as a trustee of the Balboa Art Conservation Center from 1981 to 1993. He is an honorary life member of the Save Our Heritage Organisation.