$60 Million for San Diego Art

Rea and Lela Axline Contribute to Support Home City

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1999

Rea Axline had southern California written all over him. He had graduated from Caltech in 1931, and then figured out how to coat metal alloys onto other metal objects—reaping a fortune when World War II turned that capability into a goldmine.

Rea’s wife, Lela, had an equally strong SoCal signature, except she was an artist rather than an inventor. She garnered critical acclaim for her abstract painting during the 1950s—and also loved teaching and helping other people appreciate what she did. When the Axlines turned to philanthropy, both of their occupations profited, as did their home city of San Diego, where they focused their giving. They supported hospitals, the local zoological society, Rea’s alma mater Caltech, and the local art museums.

It was after their deaths (Rea in 1992, Lela at the end of 1998) that their greatest contributions became known. One was a multimillion-dollar bequest to Caltech. The other was a pair of $30-million bequests: to the San Diego Museum of Art, and to San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art. In each case, the sum was the largest gift the museum had received. The Museum of Art’s endowment prior to the gift had been $47 million; the MCA’s, only $4 million. The MCA was consequently able to expand into two new buildings in 2007, and the Museum of Art undertook a major renovation of its art school.