About / History of Mingei

Established in 1978, Mingei International Museum collects, conserves and exhibits arts of daily use – by anonymous craftsmen of ancient times, from traditional cultures of past and present and by historical and contemporary designers. The Museum’s Founder, Martha Longenecker, was a professor of art at San Diego State University who studied the art of pottery-making in Japan. As an artist craftsman, she became acquainted with and learned from the founders and leaders of the Mingei Association of Japan, who inspired her to carry the vision of mingei to the U.S.A.

Mingei International Museum’s inaugural exhibition was DOLLS AND FOLK TOYS OF THE WORLD. Since then, Mingei has shared over 183 exhibitions covering a diverse range of cultures, themes, and media. These exhibitions have featured both unknown craftspeople and renowned artists, and everything from the tiniest Pre-Columbian bead to large-scale sculptures by Niki de Saint Phalle. In August 1996, Mingei International Museum relocated to its current 41,000-square-foot facil­ity on the Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park.

The Meaning of “Mingei”

The word mingei, meaning art of the people, was coined by a revered Japanese philosopher named Sōetsu Yanagi. As a young man living in Korea in the early 1920s, he was taken with the timeless beauty of Yi dynasty (1392-1910) pottery—a simple, rustic type made in numberless quantities over the centuries. Used for everything from tea cups to kimchi jars, the pottery was everywhere and taken for granted.

Yanagi, however, saw Yi dynasty pottery with fresh eyes, and he considered it among the most beautiful of manmade objects—equal to renowned scroll paintings of the East and paintings and sculptures of the West. His writings, lectures and conversations opened the eyes of Koreans to their long-dismissed and anonymous artistic legacy. In 1921, Yanagi opened a folk museum in a small building in the old palace in Seoul, filled with Korean pots and other crafts. It was the first museum of mingei in the world.

Returning to his homeland, Yanagi began to collect Japanese crafts, believing that his own people, too, needed to discover and preserve anonymous objects of truth and beauty that they had lived with and used over the ages. In 1936, with potters Kanjiro Kawai and Shoji Hamada, he opened the first Japan Folk Craft Museum (Nihon Mingei-kan). It stands for arts of the people returned to the people.

Yanagi explains the concept of mingei in his seminal work, The Unknown Craftsman:

“It is my belief that while the high level of culture of any country can be found in its fine arts, it is also vital that we should be able to examine and enjoy the proofs of the culture of the great mass of the people, which we call folk art. The former are made by a few for the few, but the latter, made by the many for many, are a truer test. The quality of the life of the people of that country as a whole can best be judged by the folkcrafts.”

The Unknown Craftsman – A Japanese Insight into Beauty, Sōetsu Yanagi, Kodansha International, New York, 1989

Martha Longenecker

Mingei International Museum is a reflection of its Founder Martha Longenecker’s dedication to the vision of mingei. With her inspiration and guidance, the Museum was established and developed over more than 27 years, bringing art of the people to the people of the San Diego region and far beyond.

Martha received a BA in Art with a minor in English from the University of California at Los Angeles. At Claremont Graduate School, she studied painting with famed California artist Millard Sheets, and she received an Art Education Credential and a Master of Fine Arts Degree. Establishing her own ceramics studio in Claremont, California, she made wheel-thrown stoneware forms, which were exhibited nationally through Dalzell Hatfield Galleries from 1944 to 1964.

In 1955 San Diego State University asked her to develop the school’s ceramics program. During Martha’s 35-year tenure as Professor of Art, she taught the history of ceramics and design. She also directed the gallery program and supervised the University’s student art teachers. Continuing post-graduate research included significant study in Japan under the guidance of the potter Shoji Hamada (1894–1978) and the contemporary potter Tatsuzo Shimaoka (1919–2007). Working in Japan gave her the opportunity to directly experience the teachings of art historian and aesthetician Dr. Sōetsu Yanagi, whom she had met in 1952, and who coined the term mingei—art of the people.

In the following years, at Martha’s invitation, Mr. Hamada and Mr. Shimaoka visited the United States to lecture, exhibit and demonstrate pottery making. As Martha returned again and again to Japan for further study, she was inspired to found an organization to facilitate these cultural exchanges. With the encouragement of her late husband, Sydney Martin Roth, who provided seed money, Mingei International Museum was incorporated as a nonprofit, public institution in 1974. Four years later, with an unprecedented gift of a 20-year leasehold provided by University Towne Centre and Ernest W. Hahn and Associates, Martha oversaw the design and construction of the original Museum which opened at University Towne Centre in San Diego in May 1978.

During her 27-year tenure as Director (1978 – 2005), Martha Longenecker directed the organization and design of 128 dynamic, changing exhibitions of “arts of the people,” drawing from Mingei International’s permanent collection and other museum and private collections. Martha was a strong, creative force in a successful $8 million Capital Campaign that was completed in 1997. She oversaw the architectural design and build-out of the 41,000 square-foot museum facility on the Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park (opened in August 1996), and the installation of its inaugural exhibitions.

In recognition of her contribution to transcultural artistic understanding, in 2003, Martha Longenecker was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun by the Emperor of Japan.