The Biggest Modern Art Museum in America Isn’t Where You Think

San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art reopened this weekend after a $305 million revamp, with gallery-goers enjoying a lot of newly installed art—and light-filled space.

At the Saturday ceremony for the unveiling of the three-year, $305 million expansion of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), the museum's director Neal Benezra joined San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, Congresswomen Nancy Pelosi, and Charles Schwab, chairman of the museum's board of trustees, on a stage set up on the street in front of SFMOMA's new entrance on Howard Street.

"This is supposed to be a ribbon cutting, but we do things a little differently at SFMOMA," Benezra said before he and the others pushed a big red button, releasing red confetti down on the crowd. Benezra then signaled to a brass band—its members wearing red T-shirts proclaiming "Wow!"—to begin playing, and staff members carrying red balloons to start a procession.

Behind the stage, Richard Serra's monumental sculpture, Sequence, was visible in the foyer of the new entrance. Visitors walking through the old, and still functioning entrance on Third Street will walk beneath a huge Alexander Calder mobile.

The Norwegian firm Snøhetta oversaw the expansion, adding a wing of undulating white panels to Mario Botta's 1995 brick building.

Nick Gomez, an artist and architect, had just started touring the galleries with his 15-year-old daughter, Olena, who recalled being dragged out of bed at 2 a.m. for the closing of the old iteration of the museum, when it stayed open all night.

Gomez said bigger was not necessarily better—but he liked the museum's design. The ripples of the new building, meant to invoke the waves and fog of San Francisco, represented something different to Gomez. "There's this striation," he said. "It's like the Grand Canyon with layers of dirt."


SFMOMA has tripled its gallery space with the expansion. It is now the largest space for modern art in the country: The museum has 145,000 square feet of gallery space, 20,000 more than New York's MOMA.

One of the 5,000 people who got free tickets to check out the opening, Khalil Muhsin, an Oakland consultant and photographer, was undaunted by the size.

"'Too big' is for a 32-ounce rib eye, not for priceless works of art," he said.

The numbers at the new museum are a little staggering: There are 1,100 pieces on loan from the Gap founders, Doris and Donald Fisher. The Fisher collection of postwar and contemporary art includes works by Gerhard Richter, Ellsworth Kelly, and Andy Warhol, and 260 of those pieces were displayed at the opening.

Henrik Kam/courtesy SFMOMA

Snøhetta expansion of the new SFMOMA, 2016

Another 200 donors promised to give or have given 3,000 works to the museum, and it opened with 600—among them pieces by Pablo Picasso, Ed Ruscha, and Diane Arbus. The photography center, always a particular strength of SFMOMA, now has almost the entire 3rd floor. There's a new sculpture garden and a "living wall" of nearly 20,000 plants.

Looking at the contemporary art on the 7th floor, David Yu, a pharmacist from Sacramento, said the scale of the new museum was appealing. He came to the museum when he was a student in San Francisco five years ago.

"There's a lot more art than before," he said. "It's more spacious and you can look at art on your own and not be too crowded."

That's what they wanted, a place open and comfortable enough to look at art in peace, said Robert J. Fisher, president of SFMOMA's board of trustees and the son of Doris and Donald. Showing Pelosi the collection on opening day, he said he had never seen his parents' art look better.

Sarah Roberts, associate curator of painting and sculpture, said much thought had gone into ensuring the art had plenty of space, making the ceilings on the 6th floor higher, for example, to accommodate the massive German artwork in the Fisher collection.

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SFMOMA has also reworked the wall labels, making them more conversational, and the museum's audio guide has been reimagined with comedians and sports announcers as well as actors from the HBO show, Silicon Valley. "It's to show you don't have to be an expert," Roberts said. "Everyone has their perspective and that perspective is valid."

Andrew Russeth, an art critic and co-executive editor of ArtNews, said the last 15 years had seen a mania for expansion on the part of museums, and this could go very awry.

Museums can go into debt, Russeth said. They can feel pressure to get bigger and splashier art to go in the ramped-up spaces, and the art can get lost altogether. SFMOMA had got it right, he thought.

"They got really big, but it feels manageable," Russeth said. "If you don't have all day, you could visit for an hour or two and get a fairly concise view of modern art, or you could dip into the California art, or you could just walk through and see the Serra before meeting friends for drinks."

If you did want to see the Serra before drinks, you wouldn't need to pay the museum's $25 admission price: The ground floors are free and the whole museum is free to those 18 and under.

Jon McNeal/Snøhetta

The new SFMOMA, view from Yerba Buena Gardens

Deborah Cullinan, chief executive officer of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts across the street from the new museum, said her organization and others in the neighborhood would benefit from being near to the rebooted museum.

"We're kind of like the punk rock sister," Cullinan said. "We're super nimble, and we're not collecting so we're very interested in working outside our walls."

Deborah Rappaport, co-founder of the Minnesota Street Project, which offers affordable space for artists' studios, arts nonprofits, and galleries, said a large, well-respected museum acted as an anchor for the arts scene in a city.

But a museum can't do it all by itself, Rappaport added, and with the flood of tech money in San Francisco leading to growing income inequality and soaring housing prices, recognizing the importance of artists and keeping them in the city remained a real concern.

"What we're all trying to do is expose people to art whether at a museum or a gallery," Rappaport said. "Young people need to be taught how to enjoy experiencing art, and that the visual and performing arts are important."

Having a huge museum would hopefully create more interest in art, said Patricia Maloney, the executive director of Southern Exposure, a San Francisco nonprofit devoted to visual artists, although the fear was SFMOMA will drain resources from other arts organizations.

Henrik Kam/courtesy SFMOMA

Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace featuring Alexander Calder's sculpture Maquette for Trois Disques (Three Disks), formerly Man (1967)

Not everything at the new museum is perfect. Russeth called the $25 admission price too steep, and said he found the offerings on the 7th floor awfully familiar.

"It's painfully predictable and market-driven," Russeth said. "There's Richard Prince and Mark Bradford and Jeff Koons—they're all great artists, but you think, 'Oh my God, this could be any museum in the world.' I wish there'd been a little more weirdness."

Russeth and others see a lack of diversity.

"The Fisher Collection is amazing—it's insane the quality of the work they have," he said. "No museum could afford to buy it, but it's incredibly male, incredibly white, and incredibly big money."

The museum would have to make a real effort to be welcoming and inclusive, Russeth added.

On Saturday, Joseph Yeh felt welcome, and the 7th floor was weird enough for him. His co-workers at Yahoo told him to start at the top and work down, and to be sure and see the video of a soap bubble's journey (The Tenant by Rivane Neuenschwander, inspired by the Roman Polanski film of the same title).

Yeh came with his friend Charu Sharma, who works at LinkedIn. Sharma said that although she preferred older art, like that at the Asian Art Museum, both she and Yeh were enjoying the opportunity to see something new. Yeh said he particularly enjoyed the interactive displays at the expanded museum.

"It feels more updated," he said. "It's more visceral. You have more of a connection to the art."


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