The Peninsula Museum of Art Searches for a New Home—Again

The Peninsula Museum of Art before it was evicted from its Burlingame space in early July.  (Courtesy PMA)

It’s been a tumultuous few months for museums forced to close due to COVID-19, and the Peninsula Museum of Art (PMA) has not been spared its share of sudden changes. The humble fine arts museum is not only looking for a new home; it now has new co-executive directors committed to carrying on its core mission of spotlighting regional talent.

After the coronavirus pandemic forced the PMA to close to the public in March, the museum’s leadership team was faced with yet another shutdown of sorts: an eviction from their home of the past seven years.

Officially, July 5 was the PMA’s last day in Burlingame. At least, for now.

While the pandemic was not anticipated, the museum’s temporary closure was inevitable. The 18,000-square-foot Burlingame complex of galleries, classrooms and studios was long ago slated for redevelopment, though its recent eviction was abrupt.

Renting space rather than owning a building has always been part of the institution’s structure. “What’s unique about us is that we’re one of the few art museums not founded by a rich collector,” said Ruth Waters, the PMA’s founder and a working sculptor now in her 80s. Rather than rely on wealthy individuals, the nonprofit is sustained through foundation funding, donations and event and class fees, as well as nearly all-volunteer labor. (The only paid contractors are the website administrator and exhibition installer.) “We’re all worker bees from the art community,” Waters added.

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Another less anticipated change was Waters’ decision to formally step down as executive director and board chair on June 23. Longtime board members Christina Chahal and Megan Kamrath now serve as the museum’s co-executive directors.

Waters has always straddled the worlds of art-making and art administration. After graduating from Stanford in 1955 and starting a family, she founded the Twin Pines Art Center in Belmont in 1977. The Peninsula Museum of Art, which was established in Belmont in 2003 and moved to Burlingame in 2013, was created from the same blueprint: offering artists studio space to work as well as exhibit, and welcoming the public free of charge. The institution also filled a geographic niche, showcasing regional fine art south of San Francisco’s major museums and north of Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center.

For Kamrath and Chahal, their most crucial task is reimagining what their institution offers mid-peninsula arts patrons. “In a weird way, this eviction allows us to refocus on our core mission, which is identifying and elevating regional artists,” said Chahal. “This is an opportunity to look at our programming and ask, what has engaged the public the most? We’re using this time to reinvent and refocus on what best serves our local community and our fabulous regional artists.”

The PMA shuttered before the scheduled conclusion of an eclectic array of exhibitions, including Kamal Al Mansour’s Art is the Weapon, a showcase of the artist’s mixed-media assemblages, including large portraits of African American cultural icons like Maya Angelou and Fela Kuti.

An exhibition at the Peninsula Museum of Art before it closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy PMA)

The new leaders’ other top priority is identifying a new physical home for the museum—ideally in San Mateo County, where the PMA is the only major fine arts museum. Even before the coronavirus, Chahal notes, snarled traffic between San Jose and San Francisco, as well as a more deliberate focus on supporting nearby arts and culture, has meant more peninsula residents were intentionally investing in local art offerings.

“This is now even more obvious in this pandemic, as people stay close to home and become much more focused on their hyperlocal area,” Chahal said. “And that’s the mission of the museum!”

The point is salient for Kamrath, who got involved with the PMA after moving to the Bay Area from Minnesota two years ago. Living close to the museum, she initially signed up to be a docent and got more deeply involved after working closely with others who shared her passion. “I’m an aspiring artist, and I wanted to find a community I could relate to,” she said.

Chahal, who grew up in the Bay Area with an artist mother, returned to the region the same year the PMA moved from Belmont to Burlingame. At nearby major institutions, she noted, visitors might enjoy a marvelous exhibition but never get to meet the artists—unless those visitors were also major donors.

“It’s a rare museum where you can meet and talk to the artists whose work is on the wall,” she said of the PMA. “For artists who often work in solitude, to be able to show their work and have the public share the space and engage with them—it’s an amazing thing to be a part of.”

While they search for a new location, the museum’s permanent collection is in climate-controlled storage in an undisclosed location, though Chahal emphasizes that the word “permanent” should not be misunderstood as relating to size.

“The collection is really tiny,” she said, explaining that much of the museum’s holdings were generously gifted by artists who showed work at the PMA. “If it was all stacked up, it could fit in a dining room.”

While preserving the collection is key, other programs and offerings have been deemed nonessential. The museum’s library was liquidated; it grew from donations over the years, without an overarching curatorial vision. The temporary closure also means that for now, the artists working at the PMA were forced to relocate. So far, Waters and a dozen others have set up studios in San Carlos’ Art Bias.

As the museum’s founder, Waters remains involved in supporting the museum’s next chapter. “My focus is looking for our next location,” she explained, noting she’s been actively searching for a new space for the past two years. “I’m concerned that this not just disappear.”

Kamrath emphasizes that won’t happen; the museum is merely in hibernation. “The PMA does not have a physical location, but we are not permanently closed,” she said. “We have just transitioned to a virtual environment with the intention that we will find a place for artists to exhibit again.”

As co-directors, Kamrath and Chahal agree that the allure of the PMA has always been the ability to meet artists and create connections in real time.

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“The value of what is brought to the museum was always temporal,” Chahal said. “We build up and then take down—a lot like Burning Man.”