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The Stuart Collection: A Treasure Hunt for Art Lovers

They are carefully melded to the earth, absorbed into woodlands and sewn into the fabric of existing structures. Meandering the 1,200-acre UC San Diego campus, you will likely stumble upon a treasure—a giant, vibrantly colored bird embellished with a gilded crown, an oversized red shoe frolicking through the theatre district, or a secret lookout with coded messages.

The 19 sculptures that comprise the internationally renowned Stuart Collection each have a unique story to tell. The public art works, which have been sprouting across campus over the past three decades, represent an impressive assemblage of sculpture by celebrated contemporary artists such as Robert Irwin, Do Ho Suh, Bruce Nauman and Kiki Smith.

Who could dream up such a fantastical place? James Stuart DeSilva did not consider himself an artist, but he felt a strong passion for connecting with great artists of our time. He imagined a space you could go to ‘live’ with art, where sculptors could choose the site that would best frame their work. When he moved to La Jolla to start his business in the late 1970s, he discovered UC San Diego, the ideal location where he could manifest his vision. Not only was there space, but there was a captive audience of intellectually curious minds who would engage with the art on a regular basis. Whether the works were ignored or adored was irrelevant; the goal was to simply promote contemplation.

Do Ho Suh, "Fallen Star"
Fallen Star, 2012. Do Ho Suh. Stuart Collection, UC San Diego. Photo by Philipp Scholz Rittermann.

“My personal experience told me that living with art, casual repetitive exposure to it, can lead to understanding and appreciation, if not passion and possessiveness, even among those who profess to dislike art,” explained DeSilva in an essay.

In 1978, DeSilva established the Stuart Foundation, and four years later entered into a partnership with the university to launch the project, along with $1.4 million in funds for the inaugural commissions. By 1983, the first work was installed—a 29-ft tall, brightly colored bird by popular French artist Niki De Saint Phalle. Perched atop a tall arch, the “Sun God” has become a campus icon and inspired the largest—and one of the longest—student-run events on campus, called the “Sun God Festival.”

His gift truly changed everything. More than a dozen other works have alighted on campus since then, and have been similarly embraced. A 560-ft long “Snake Path” leads students uphill to the library, winding past a ‘garden of Eden,’ a literal path to knowledge. A small house teeters on the edge of a seven story building, as though it had crash-landed there, an exploration of cultural displacement. And in the eucalyptus grove next to the theatre district, a choir of trees sings to the tunes of the changing light, wind and seasons.

Terry Allen Trees, Stuart CollectionTrees, 1986. Terry Allen. Stuart Collection,
UC San Diego. Photo by Philipp Scholz Rittermann.

Today, all of the works have been donated to the campus. DeSilva himself contributed a total of nearly $2 million toward the collection’s launch and expansion. A recent $1 million gift from a local philanthropist established an endowment, the proceeds from which will help fund future commissions into perpetuity. Completely self-sustaining, the collection is made possible by private philanthropists like these. Each new piece comes to fruition as a result of the generosity of donors, including Friends of the Stuart Collection, a dedicated group of 130 arts enthusiasts, as well as many other foundations and individuals.