A look at USD’s gallery director


Dray Wilson/The USD Vista Derrick Cartwright is an associate professor and director of University Galleries at USD.

Derrick Cartwright, PhD, was living an art historian’s dream. He had landed a job as director of the prestigious Seattle Art Museum, and business was booming. They had an exhibit featuring about 200 works from Pablo Picasso, and the public absolutely loved it. Tickets were being sold for $24 a person, and, because it was so popular, the museum remained open for 24 hours during the last week of the show.

He thought to himself, “It couldn’t get any better than this.” Then, one day it just did not feel right anymore.

“I felt like all my artistic choices were driven by a financial goal,” Cartwright said. “I wasn’t making authentic decisions. I decided that I was done with that phase of my career and decided to come work at the University of San Diego to help grow the art collection.”

Cartwright’s choice to help grow and develop the art collection at USD was a decision that has provided exponential positive returns not only for him, but also for the surrounding community. Cartwright is the director of University Galleries, and he spoke recently to a classroom of USD students about his career as an art collector, the art exhibits here on campus, the donation process, and the future of the program.

Cartwright’s passion for art was established in college where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in art history from University of California, Berkeley. So enamored with the subject, he furthered his education by completing his master’s in design and art history at UCLA and his PhD in art history at the University of Michigan.

In 1993, Cartwright began teaching at USD and later moved from San Diego to France to work as a museum director for four years. He eventually returned to San Diego to lead the San Diego Museum of Art before heading north to run the museum in Seattle. It was in 2012 that he accepted a job offer to come back to work at USD.

“My career really has come full circle,” Cartwright said. “It was not a very well-planned career path, but I’ve had so many different opportunities, and I love working here at USD again.”

Cartwright’s return to USD really allowed the art gallery scene on campus to grow. With six galleries dispersed around campus, the students are exposed to many different types of art, with each exhibit running from the beginning of the semester through finals week of that semester.

“I want each exhibit to be representative of who we are as a community,” Cartwright said. “It’s all about the learning experience of the students and the surrounding San Diego community.”

These exhibits presented by Cartwright and his staff are planned out three to four years in advance. The galleries around campus all have a different theme to provide an experience for viewers unlike any other. The two galleries inside of the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice building presently house a photographical historical review of Cesar Chavez’s legacy, while one of the two galleries inside of Serra Hall currently displays many Native American prints.

Currently, the main art exhibit, “IMPRINT: Recent Acquisitions from USD’s Print Collection,” is located in the Robert and Karen Hoehn Family Galleries inside of Founders Hall. These two galleries are home to nearly 70 works of printed art. The art inside the gallery are copies or “prints” of the original artwork and are very valuable because the artist only makes a certain amount of prints for each individual work of art.

An upcoming exhibit that Cartwright is particularly excited about will open in the spring when the galleries present works from the British Museum in London. In addition, a collection of Brazilian Xerox art will be available for viewing in fall 2017. That exhibit is being funded by a grant from the Getty Trust.

“My favorite thing is when kids walk into the exhibit and say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that’s here,’” Cartwright said. “A lot of the time, it’s the students that help us decide what pieces the university should offer.”

Some of the pieces inside the “IMPRINT” exhibit were purchased, but a majority of the artwork that USD obtains is through donations. A huge part of Cartwright’s job is to hunt down donations from the surrounding community. He emphasized that he never feels like he has to beg artists or art collectors for a donation. Cartwright’s goal is to create a positive experience for both him and the potential donor.

“Usually, donors don’t decide spur of the moment that they want to give to our collection,” Cartwright said. “On the rare occasion, sometimes people will just show up to USD wanting to donate.”

Donations provide the art galleries with pieces that the university otherwise would not be able to afford. This small act of giving helps fill in the gaps of the art collection.

“Since I started here four years ago, we have collected more than 1,000 prints ranging from the early 15th century to modern day,” Cartwright said.

He explained that nearly 350 of those additions came from a single donor.

“My goal is to continue to grow the collection,” Cartwright said.

When Cartwright came back in 2012 to work for USD, the collection—which was about 400 prints at the time—consisted of only two works by women artists and zero works by African Americans.

“We’re not living up to our responsibility as a university if we can’t provide you with the artwork you need to learn,” says Dr. Cartwright. “Our strategic plan is to continue to diversify our collection. I also want to create exhibits that wouldn’t otherwise be in San Diego.”

Cartwright’s main goal of expanding and diversifying the art collection is to benefit the USD students and the San Diego community.

“I want the experience of the students, and the variety of their exposure to our art collections make their day better,” Cartwright said. “At the end of the day, that’s all I can ask for.”

Cartwright hopes to foster a welcoming environment for students to experience art and culture on the USD campus.   

Written by Haleigh Stewart, Contributor