SAN DIEGO – Martha W. Longenecker, 93, founding president and director emerita of Mingei International Museum, died on Oct. 29.
Longenecker’s lifelong career in art was multifaceted, encompassing work as an artist-craftsman in ceramics, educator and museum director. She founded Mingei International Museum in May 1978, inspired by the teachings of the revered 20th century Japanese scholar Soetsu Yanagi, who coined the term mingei (art of the people).
At the time of her retirement in 2005 as director, Mingei International had grown into a museum of international repute housing a collection of more than 17,000 objects from 140 countries and serving over 100,000 visitors each year.
Longenecker’s first direct contact with mingei was through a week-long encounter in summer 1952 in Los Angeles with Dr. Yanagi, Japanese potter Shoji Hamada and English potter Bernard Leach, who – as part of a world tour – lectured and demonstrated pottery making there to area craftsmen. They invited her to visit them in Japan to experience first-hand that country’s ancient craft tradition.
She was able to accept their invitation 10 years later and, during a four-month stay in Japan, observed and worked at the kilns of Hamada and Tatsuzo Shimaoka, who had been Hamada’s main apprentice. Each was later named a National Treasure of Japan.
During this and subsequent visits to Japan, Longenecker became acquainted with other disciples of Yanagi, including Kyoto master potter Kanjiro Kawai, stencil- dye artist and National Treasure Keisuke Serizawa, and renowned woodblock print maker and painter Shiko Munakata.
“Martha was a person of immense vision and passion who dedicated her life to sharing the understanding and appreciation of mingei from all eras and cultures of the world,” said Carolyn Sheets Owen-Towle, chair of the museum’s board of trustees. “With equal parts inspiration and determination, she established Mingei International Museum and developed it for more than 27 years, presenting the highest expressions of human cultures in the making of objects of daily use to the people of the San Diego region and far beyond.”
Prior to founding the museum, Longenecker established herself as an accomplished artist and educator. After receiving a B.A. in art from UCLA, where she learned the art of pottery from renowned teacher and artist craftsman Laura Andreson, she attended Claremont Graduate School, where she studied painting with famed California artist Millard Sheets and received an Art Education Credential and a Master of Fine Arts degree.
She set up her own ceramics studio in Claremont, where she made wheel-thrown stoneware forms that were exhibited and sold nationally through the Los Angeles and New York-based Dalzell Hatfield Galleries from 1944 to 1964.
In 1955, San Diego State University invited Longenecker to develop the school’s ceramics program. During her 35-year tenure as professor of art at the university, she taught the history of ceramics and design, directed the gallery program and supervised the university’s student art teachers.
“Martha was indefatigable in the pursuit of what she believed to be a ‘right idea’. Mingei International Museum, our San Diego treasure, is the result of her legionary diligence and tenacity,” said Maureen King, member of the museum’s board of trustees.
After her first visit to Japan, Hamada and Shimaoka visited the U.S. at Ms. Longenecker’s invitation to lecture, exhibit and demonstrate pottery making. As she returned again and again to Japan for further study, it became clear to her that an organization was needed to facilitate these cultural exchanges. This led to the incorporation of Mingei International as a nonprofit, public institution in 1974 with funds provided by Longenecker’s husband, Sydney Martin Roth.
Four years later, with an unprecedented gift of a 20-year leasehold provided by University Towne Centre and Ernest W. Hahn and Associates, Longenecker oversaw the design and construction of the original Mingei International Museum, which opened May 5, 1978. Hamada had approved of Longenecker’s use of the word “mingei” because he said she understood well its meaning and importance.
In 1996, Longenecker oversaw the museum’s move to a 41,000-square-foot facility on the Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park that included six exhibition galleries, a multimedia education center, a theater, an administration center and an international art reference library.
In 2003, she led the opening of Mingei International Museum in Escondido, transforming a former 21,000-square-foot JC Penney store into a state-of-the-art museum facility that served North County residents and visitors for seven years.
During her tenure as museum director (1978-2005), Longenecker directed the organization and design of 128 exhibitions drawing from Mingei International’s permanent collection and other museum and private collections. She also oversaw the production of 33 exhibition documentary publications (many funded by the Seymour E. Clonick and Sydney Martin Roth Publication Fund established by Longenecker’s husband and his business partner) and 19 broadcast-quality videos that extend the influence of the museum’s mission throughout the world.
Following her retirement as director in October 2005, Longenecker directed for two and a half years the development of a digital image database of nearly 5,000 images from the museum’s permanent collection. She also served as an active member of the museum’s board of trustees for the past eight years.
In August 2006, Mingei International Museum published Longenecker’s last book, “Mingei of Japan: The Legacy of the Founders – Soetsu Yanagi, Shoji Hamada, Kanjiro Kawai,” a retrospective of the work and legacy of the founders of the Mingei Association in Japan and the museum’s collection.
She was honored by San Diego State University in 1998 with its Distinguished Service Medal and in 2007 with an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degree. In recognition of her contribution to transcultural artistic understanding, in 2003 she was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun by the emperor of Japan.
In 1998 at the museum’s 20th anniversary gala honoring her, the Martha W. Longenecker Director’s Chair Endowment Fund was established to ensure the museum’s continued growth. Longenecker joined many museum friends in May to celebrate her 93rd birthday and Mingei International’s 35th anniversary, at which time a portrait of her was placed on permanent display in the museum’s Founder’s Gallery to honor her accomplishments.
Just a few weeks before her passing, she attended the museum’s annual members’ dinner, sitting in the place of honor at the Nakashima table she so dearly loved.
Thirty-five years after it was founded, Mingei International Museum is thriving. Its collection now comprises 26,000 objects of folk art, craft and design from 141 countries. A nonprofit institution funded by admission, individuals, and community support, the museum offers inspiring exhibitions and diverse educational programs to more than 100,000 visitors a year.