San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: A new reason to visit San Francisco

At the opening party of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art curators, collectors and philanthropists from around the world (including Klaus Biesenbach from New York's Museum of Modern Art and Judith Neilson from Sydney's White Rabbit Gallery) are gathered in the newly built main entrance hall. Some are making their way up the maple staircases to peruse seven floors of exhibitions. Others are getting a bird's eye view of the Richard Serra sculpture, Sequence, a giant maze made of weatherproof steel visible from the street. It was considered so integral to SFMOMA that it was placed before the walls that surround it were built.

In an expansion that took three years – making it the largest museum of modern art in the US – the city of San Francisco around SoMa (South of Market) neighbourhood has changed with Silicon Valley moving in. Across the road is the new LinkedIn office tower and nearby is Twitter, Pinterest, Yelp and Airbnb. Taking advantage of a new tax break, there's been a boom with highly paid 20-something "tech-bros" moving into newly built condos effectively pricing others, including artists, out of the Bay Area.

Inside the museum are some of the greatest hits of modern art including a room of Andy Warhol's (his Triple Elvis features), some Cy Twomblys and Lichtensteins. There's a room featuring Chuck Close's large-scale pixelated works. 24 later-period photographs by Diane Arbus are on display. One floor is dedicated to the New Pritzker Center for Photography, where local Jim Goldberg's Rich and Poor series, which looks at the social divide in 1970s and '80s America with portraits accompanied by handwritten texts from the subjects. The photographs displayed of the rich are separated from the poor by a hallway of maple. It's a series that could be revisited today. A couple of streets away from SFMOMA is the Tenderloin district, where homeless survive blocks away from the construction cranes building new pads for the techies.

On the second floor you can view a Matisse, a Klee, a Frida Kahlo and a readymade by Duchamp. The whole museum is free for anyone under 18 years old. There are 19 special exhibitions in all, including a curated selection of 260 works from the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection. Founders of The Gap, the Fishers began collecting modern art for the clothing giant's offices in the mid-'70s.

Speaking at the opening, son Bob Fisher recounted his parents' dedication to the premise that "art spurs creativity". So passionate were the Fishers that one painting they owned, Two Candles by Gerhard Richter, would be wrapped up in a blanket and shipped out of San Francisco in the back of their station wagon to hang in their summer place every year. The photo-realistic painting is on now display on the sixth floor of SFMOMA.

The Fishers signed a 100-year partnership with SFMOMA to showcase their collection, which includes not one but four large rooms of Ellsworth Kellys and seven abstract paintings by Agnes Martin housed in a dedicated octagonal chapel-like gallery.

Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta – which also designed the impressive Norwegian National Opera and Ballet in Oslo and is currently working on the Great Hall at the University of South Australia – was tasked with integrating the expansion with the original 1995 Mario Botta-designed building. Said to be inspired by the fog coming off San Francisco Bay, the rippled facade of the new building is made of fabricated fibreglass reinforced polymer panels. One critic likened it to a giant meringue. The building squeezes up against the St Regis on one side and is best viewed not from street level but from the sculpture garden, an outdoor restaurant area.

There are two restaurants and a cafe on site. The soon-to-open In Situ by Michelin three-starred chef Corey Lee promises to be like a museum of food featuring a changing menu of global dishes from recipes contributed by other Michelin starred chefs including Rene Redzepi and Heston Blumenthal.

On a tour of the museum with Craig Dykers, founding partner of Snøhetta and leader of the firm's design team for SFMOMA, he explains the intentional "palette cleansing spaces" throughout the building. There's a public terrace on the seventh floor allowing for "moments of repose, to be reinvigorated by fresh air, sunlight and vistas of the city between galleries," he says. You can also sit in the maple-framed bay windows on the gallery landings and enjoy the view. Even the bathrooms provide selfie-worthy sensory relief of sorts, each level from floor to ceiling is painted in a different powerful monocolour.

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Dykers urges us to eschew the lifts for the light-filled grand maple staircases running near the windows on the eastern side of the building. He leads us up to the top floor where the staircase becomes so narrow you must walk single file. It's intentional.

"When you can rub shoulders with a stranger it makes for a different kind of experience, a civil moment, where you have to say 'after you'," says Dykers.

The marriage of art, landscape and architecture is most impressive in the Alexander Calder Motion Lab. Calder's mobiles gently twirl whenever the doors are opened to the adjacent sculpture terrace. On the terrace, the backdrop to one of Calder's sculptures is the SFMOMA Living Wall featuring 19,442 plants, of which 40 per cent are native to California.

If the design of a museum has to reflect the interests of the people that inhabit the city then SFMOMA has gone out of its way to woo the techies. A common theme across the opening speeches was this is a museum for sharing, smartphone photos and social media sharing is encouraged.

Interactivity is paramount to the visiting experience with a new immersive app using indoor positioning technology (via the museum's Wi-Fi) to deliver a variety of themed audio tours. No need to stop and start the app, it can pick up where you are standing and accordingly add commentary. For lighthearted art criticism, Martin Starr and Kumail Nanjiani from the Silicon Valley TV series debate artistic merits of various works in "This Is Not an Artwork Tour". High-wire walker Philippe Petit and members of the San Francisco Giants also add their commentary to the artworks on display. The app effectively functions as a "fifth wall" for the museum.

There's a section dedicated to graphic design on the sixth floor called "Typeface to Interface" curated through posters, analog machines and signs from 1950 to now with Google Glass. Here there's a drawing machine that chalks a new illustration on a giant blackboard every day at 1pm.

What is clear from both the app and a full day's viewing the new SFMOMA, is that it demands repeat visits. Three days with "palette cleansing breaks" either within the nooks and crannies of the building or across the rest of San Francisco is the perfect amount of time to take in the enormous collection of works. With an hour to spare before the airport I did what SFMOMA hopes local techies may now do on their lunch break by plugging in my earphones, turning on the app and going for a free walk through Richard Serra's Sequence maze to get lost in art for 20 minutes before stepping back onto the streets of San Francisco.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

sfmoma.org

sanfrancisco.travel

GETTING THERE

Qantas fly directly to San Francisco from Sydney, with connections from other Australian cities. See qantas.com

STAYING THERE

The InterContinental San Francisco is within 10 minutes walking distance to SFMOMA, as well as the downtown shopping hubs. It's also where US President Barack Obama stays when in the Bay Area. See intercontinentalsanfrancisco.com

TRAVELLING THERE

Unless you're planning on travelling out of town, there's no need to hire a car in San Francisco, after all it is the home of ride share services Uber and Lyft.

Andrea Black was a guest of San Francisco Travel

THREE MORE NEW ART SPACES

DAVID IRELAND HOUSE

Located in the Mission District and opened in January this year, the David Ireland House is San Francisco's first historic artist's home. The late artist, whose work was concerned with the beauty inherent in everyday things, lived here from 1975 to 2005. Ireland stripped the walls of this Victorian terrace then coated the plaster in layers of glossy polyurethane to preserve the "cracks, blotches, erosions, pits and discolorations...evidence of the house's history". On display is his conceptual art including a slice of cake in a mason jar from the 95th birthday party of a former boarder at Capp Street, Mr Gordon, together with a photo of the birthday boy, from 1979. See 500cappstreet.org

MINNESOTA STREET

Opened in March in the Dogpatch warehouse district, the Minnesota Street Project is a shared gallery space for artists who were otherwise priced out of San Francisco. Brion Nuda Rosch, an artist who is in charge of the artist's studios being built in another space across the road, tells us that if he were an artist starting out today there would be no way he could afford to live in the Bay Area. Realising the need to keep art in San Francisco, prominent collectors Andy and Deborah Rappaport opened the complex for artists offering below-market rent. They're hoping this will develop into an internationally recognised arts destination. See minnesotastreetproject.com

BAMPFA

Across the bay, The Berkeley Museum and Pacific Film Archive recently moved into its new home designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro opposite the University of California, Berkeley. The mission here is to inspire imagination and ignite critical dialogue though art and film. Its current Architecture of Life exhibit exploring how architecture illuminates life, features Harry Smith's String Figures and Johannes Itten's Encounter from 1916. An impressive study in colour, it predates the Bauhaus movement. See bampfa.org

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