Bram and Sandra Dijkstra are barely five minutes into their interview and they’re already talking over one another in a way that only a couple that’s been married for nearly 60 years can do. For most people, a question like “how did you begin to collect art?” is not a particularly loaded question, but for the Dijkstras, well, it’s a long story.
“It’s just something that came relatively naturally to us,” Bram says.
Sandra disagrees. Well, kind of.
“I was certainly never programmed to do this,” she says. “My mother was a New Yorker, extremely practical and pragmatic, and she would probably be so upset about what we’ve done. I was not raised to collect art. No way, Jose.”
For the Dijkstras, who have lived in the San Diego region for over 50 years, collecting art has been a lifelong passion, one that borders on obsession. They acknowledge that nearly every inch of wall space in their Julian and Del Mar homes, as well as in the office of Sandra’s literary agency, is covered with paintings, drawings and prints. Even the bathrooms are covered in art.
“It’s a little museum,” jokes Sandra. “In the bathroom, we left room for a toilet and a sink.”
With that, the couple both crack up in a way that only two people who are already in on the joke would.
A portion of the Dijkstras’ art collection, albeit a fraction of what they’ve collected over the years, is currently on display at “Collecting San Diego: Selections from the Dijkstra Fine Art Collection,” the first in a series of exhibitions focused on local collectors at the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park. The recently launched initiative aims to showcase the collections of local art enthusiasts in hopes of highlighting San Diego’s history, as well as to display regional artists who lived and worked in the region.
“I think what this show shows as well is how the Dijkstras championed our early San Diego art scene but how they continued to do so,” says Claudia Leos-Banega, a local art historian who has known Bram since the ’90s and helped curate the “Collecting San Diego” exhibition.
“They’ve continued to support and champion local artists. They bought work based on what touched them, not who was a hot name. They bought works by women, by Chicano artists — their range is diverse. It’s just so nice to see that continuum.”
The Dijkstras had always had a passion for art, but both agree that they really began collecting seriously after Sandra’s mother passed away and left them some money. While the couple initially thought about investing in stocks — or what Sandra calls “very logical” things — Bram suggested that they look into buying art. The two began going to estate art sales and local exhibitions, and the rest, as they say, was history. Their collection now spans centuries and varies in style, medium, practice and every other conceivable distinction.
“Most people invest in something in one way or another, and that makes sense, but for us, we realized that the kind of investments like the stock market were very risky, and we’d have to spend our lives following it,” says Bram. “We always had the rule that we had to like the art in terms of what it was doing, what it was saying. It had to be something that spoke to us,”
“We just kept buying more,” adds Sandra. “Even when we would say ‘enough, enough, enough already.’”
The works on display at the Dijkstra exhibition are widely varied, with everything from landscapes and woodcuts, to still lifes and surrealism. The amount of regional and local artists on display is immediately apparent, with big names such as William Newport Goodell (“Boots in Barracks”), Harry Sternberg (“Hair #9 [Hippies and Bikers in the Borrego Desert]”) and James Hubbell (“Rising Clouds”) all on display. Local women artists, who were often unfairly overshadowed by their male contemporaries, are on display as well and include Belle Baranceanu (“The Dancers”), Carol Lindemulder (“Imperial Valley Housing”) and Ethel Greene (“Sitting in the Shade, Lying in the Sun” and selections from her “Egg of an Unknown Bird” series).
Asked if they have any particular favorites from the collection, Bram doesn’t hesitate.
“This is as straightforward and honest an answer as I can give you, but I don’t have any favorites,” he says. “I like each of these works for their own reasons and my own reasons.”
For Leos-Banega, she says she could have easily curated a more thematic exhibition, but ultimately decided on a more comprehensive approach. She says she was most surprised by the fact that the Dijkstras’ collection wasn’t limited to regional or even just California artists, but also included European and 19th century works. She worked closely with the couple to help choose the pieces for the exhibition with the Dijkstras having the final say on what they were willing to part with.
“Sometimes they’d say, ‘we just don’t want that hole in our wall,’” says Leos-Banega, laughing.
What Leos-Banega and the Dijkstras both emphatically agree on is that they hope their “Collecting San Diego” exhibition, and the series at large, will inspire others to begin collecting themselves. The couple are beginning to donate many of the works in their collection to local institutions such as the San Diego Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Timken Museum. And while it’s hard to conceive of a scenario where a potential collector would amass a collection as large and as extensive as the Dijkstras, all parties concur that the magic begins with that first purchase.
“I don’t know what hole needs to be filled to get that message across to people, but I know people who are doing well economically, but they don’t put original artwork in their house, and I think they would if they knew that they could get nice things for a couple hundred dollars or a couple thousand if they have it,” Leos-Banega says.
“So many people feel that art, quote-unquote, is beyond their reach,” Bram says. “Reproductions don’t have any of the textures or colors or the anguish you feel in the original artist’s work. That’s what really speaks to you. There isn’t that dialogue that exists between an original work of art and yourself.”
“For people who do come to the show and who are inspired to collect locally, I’d say that’s one of the real joys is getting to know the artists,” Sandra adds. “Visiting their studios and not only are you supporting their art, but you’re learning about San Diego art history. You’re helping them to create that history.”
‘Collecting San Diego: Selections from the Dijkstra Fine Art Collection’
When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Exhibition runs through the end of the year.
Where: San Diego History Center, 1649 El Prado, Suite No. 3, Balboa Park
Phone: (619) 232-3720
Combs is a freelance writer.