Art

Amid a Challenging, Changing City, SFMOMA Reopens with Global Aspirations

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The new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s 3rd Street atrium entrance (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

SAN FRANCISCO — After a three-year closure, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) reopens to the public on May 14. The museum is a new institution, thanks to an enormous new wing and the acquisition of the whopping Doris and Donald Fisher Collection. It opens at a time of new museum practice. Like more and more large museums around the world, SFMOMA wants to serve a global audience with “culture,” not just art.

The museum is also opening in a city that has become even more of a congested, fractious, global economic power — with the problems to match. The ultimate success of the new museum will depend on how well it balances these conflicting concerns.

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An Alexander Calder sculpture by the “living wall” (click to enlarge)

The museum kept its 1995 brick-and-cylinder building by Mario Botta and hired the Norwegian firm Snøhetta to build a tall, white wing behind it. The new building is an elegant iceberg floating behind Botta’s sturdy fortress. It’s a dense site, and the Snøhetta team made the extension feel seamless. The extension slots right into its narrow space like it’s always been there, and the new galleries line almost exactly with the old. The most special addition may be the third-floor “living wall.” Covered with 19,000 plants, it’s the largest green wall in the US, and it’s going to delight every adult and child who steps out of the Alexander Calder room.

While the effect of the Snøhetta extension is delicate, its impact is big. It adds 230,000 square feet to the museum and triples the gallery space. The previous building had four gallery levels, wide-open spaces, and lots of natural light. Visiting used to be a casual, two-hour affair. But the new museum launches with 1,900 pieces spread over seven gallery levels. And while lead architect Craig Dykers was eager to talk up all the ways he’d sought to add “palate cleansers” and “intimacy” with varying stair heights, light screens, and alcoves, there’s no getting around it: walking through the museum now requires all-day stamina and commitment.

Between the museum’s permanent collection, the Fisher Collection, and a new modern and contemporary initiative called the Campaign for Art, the SFMOMA team has combined three different institutions into one massive building. The original permanent collection, still on view, is strong on photography, reasonable on contemporary, and has a smattering of 20th-century European and American modern art. With the Fisher Collection, the museum now also has a Manhattan-centric greatest hits collection from the last several decades. The Fishers amassed deep collections of work from artists including Richard Serra, Alexander Calder, Anselm Kiefer, Andy Warhol, Sol LeWitt, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, and Agnes Martin.

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The new SFMOMA facade
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The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s new entrance on Howard Street

The Fisher Collection’s list of artworks is impressive and so is the museum’s layout. Dedicated, single-artist rooms allow the artists’ strengths to shine. Warhol’s crucial early 1960s silkscreens and Kelly’s razor-sharp colors especially benefit from isolated treatment. Martin, whose sublimely subtle works could’ve been lost amidst the other artists’ noise, has a splendid hexagonal space that reminded me of a nest, or a chapel. But the Fisher Collection is short on all kinds of diversity: gender, race and ethnicity, geography. The danger is that it may dominate the museum’s exhibitions for years to come.

The Campaign for Art seems to be museum director Neal Benezra’s response to that possibility, and it’s where you’ll find the museum’s best surprises. The Campaign celebrated the expansion by securing more than 3,000 works from hundreds of donors. Benezra and his team had fun, securing more adventurous choices from contemporary artists including Ana Mendieta, Tom Marioni, Martha Rosler, Martin Kippenberger, David Hammons, and Nicole Miller. Their list is far more diverse, and it feels more current. However, the lack of current work from Africa, Latin America, and Asia is startling and would be a natural place for the museum to grow.

A window showing the two "seams" of the two buildings
A window showing the two “seams” of the old and new buildings

It may take the museum’s expanding team (more than a hundred new front-line hires) a little time to settle in. The photography exhibitions are crowded, and some of the original departments, like graphic design, will need new anchors in a collection that’s suddenly grown so rich with paintings and photographs. (The graphic design exhibition Typeface to Interface is promising but lacks the focus of the other galleries.) But the galleries are well designed, and the new works offer a wealth of direction. The key will be clarifying the museum’s vision so it matches the new direction — contemporary art since 1960, not the modern period.

Agnes Martin's gallery
The Agnes Martin gallery
Christopher Wilmarth, "Days on Blue" (1974-77) Fisher Collection
Christopher Wilmarth, “Days on Blue” (1974–77), from the Fisher Collection

The other key will be retaining SFMOMA’s role as a grounding institution in a city that’s facing a full-blown identity crisis. There’s been lots of local hand-wringing about the new museum. Many of the concerns are reflections of how residents feel about San Francisco itself. San Francisco’s recent flood of tech startups and venture capital has washed away its artists and its moderate-income, ethnically diverse neighborhoods. With the museum’s $610 million total price tag, its boosted ticket price ($25, $7 more than when the museum closed three years ago), its interpretative selfie station (a glorified photo booth), and its new restaurant run by the three-Michelin-star chef Corey Lee (whom Benezra calls the museum’s “curator of food”), the new SFMOMA has elements that make it a brash match for an arriviste city.

The city’s journey can be traced through the institution’s own real estate. One of the newly acquired photographs, “South of Market” (1976) by Michael Jang, shows what the neighborhood looked like long before SFMOMA moved into the Botta building: parking lots and desolate streets. Now Larry Gagosian and John Berggruen are preparing to open outposts of their international galleries across from SFMOMA’s blue-chip treasure chest.

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Installation view of pieces mostly from the Campaign for Art

The museum isn’t responsible for exacerbating San Francisco’s problems, and it’s trying to address them. Admission will be free to everyone under the age of 18. There’s a goal to triple the number of visiting schoolchildren, from 18,000 to 55,000. In a city that’s lost its young artists and is struggling to maintain its local galleries, the museum is proudly showing off acquisitions from Bay Area artists. There are excellent paintings from Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud, a small but powerful exhibition room for Bay Area conceptual art, and strong offerings in the photography collection (Jang, Irene Poon, Benjamin Chinn, and others, plus a selection of prints from Jim Goldberg’s astounding Rich and Poor series).

There’s only so much one museum can do — especially when it needs to balance a community’s needs with its own. SFMOMA needs a piece of the new money that’s in town, and it needs to get bodies in the door (the museum’s looking to increase attendance to 1 million people per year, over a previous high of 650,000).

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The Fisher Collection’s British sculpture gallery

The sole architectural disappointment of the new expansion is a good illustration of the museum’s high-wire act. Although a new entrance on Howard Street offers a glass-walled atrium crowded by two mighty Serra spirals, the museum’s former entrance on 3rd Street will remain open to visitors. Entering on the 3rd Street side of the building takes visitors through Botta’s atrium and up a new maple staircase to join the Howard Street visitors in the second-floor lobby. But the atrium’s size makes it an awkward fit with the new building, and the Snøhetta team made the inexplicable decision to strip the entrance of its warm wooden paneling and colorful Sol LeWitt pieces. Everything’s been painted over in an inoffensive palette of white and gray. The interior result is a blind eye to the street, of bad proportions, and a bland, global look that can be found everywhere from Scandinavian shelter blogs to the Singapore Airlines VIP lounge.

The 3rd Street entrance reveals a rare misstep and offers a symbolic warning. SFMOMA has a tremendous opportunity to be not just the biggest but the best museum of its kind on the West Coast. Opening the institution to the world can reap rich benefits — but turning its back on the neighborhood carries consequences.

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Exterior view of the Snøhetta extension
Conservation room
The conservation room
New museum lobby and ticketing
The museum’s new lobby and ticketing area
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Installation view of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s new galleries
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Leonor Antunes, all pieces titled “a spiral staircase leads down to the garden” (2016)

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) (151 Third Street, San Francisco)
reopens to the public on May 14. 

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