Last year, the 17,000-square-foot Sunnylands Center and Gardens opened, fashioning itself as “Camp David West” — a destination, under the auspices of the foundation established by Walter and Leonore Annenberg, for internationally significant retreats and meetings, as well as an educational resource for the public. The center’s director, Dr. Janice Lyle — the former Palm Springs Art Museum director who had consulted on the Annenbergs’ donation of Impressionist and Post Impressionist paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York — helped open and now oversees day-to-day operations at the popular showcase for California modernism, including the restored A. Quincy Jones-designed residence.
How do you make Sunnylands appeal to an audience beyond policy wonks and architecture buffs?
The high-level retreats, which are orchestrated by the president of the trust [Geoff Cowan], are exclusive by nature. The public part, which I work in, lets us provide a venue that’s meaningful to a broad group. It’s a wonderful balance. We want to make the center accessible and create a direct emotional connection.
How do you create an emotional connection?
The building and gardens are so spectacular that the public is getting an experience that is every bit as satisfying as the one that world leaders get at the historic estate. On the tours, we have a paid guide and never more than seven visitors at a time. It’s as if you are a guest of the Annenbergs. That, by itself, has increased people’s satisfaction.
Sunnylands is positioned as a showcase of modernism. Do you think the appetite for this will endure?
No way is the appreciation of modernism ever going away. It will take its place in a natural history, and Palm Springs will remain the Mecca of the style because it has the largest collection of authentic buildings that haven’t been dramatically altered.
What was it like living in the iconic Frey House while working at the museum?
The Frey House has a perfect connection between outside and in, and it inspired the house I designed for myself in Idyllwild. During the historical society’s home tour, people would come in and say, “I don’t like modern … but …” and then they would tell me all the things they liked about my house. That’s what’s happening at Sunnylands.
What’s coming next at Sunnylands?
Next year, there will be more children’s activities and partnerships with community groups. There will be some happy surprises.
Sunnylands Center and Gardens is free to the public Thursday-Sunday through June 30. It will be closed during July and August.