SFMOMA: Still Closed for Construction. But in May, More Open than Ever

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art reopens its doors this spring, on May 14. After three years of interior and exterior construction costing $610 million dollars, the new iteration of SFMOMA will be three times its original size. The new structure, designed by Norwegian architecture firm, Snøhetta, has seven floors of spacious galleries and will exhibit 4,000 pieces of art, making it one of the largest and finest modern and contemporary art museums in the world.

Snøhetta’s new addition to SFMOMA photo by Henrik Kam, courtesy of SFMOMA

Snøhetta’s new addition to SFMOMA photo by Henrik Kam, courtesy of SFMOMA

SFMOMA’s decision was prompted by the extraordinary donation of the Doris and Donald Fisher collection. The Fisher collection includes 1,100 pieces of work from artists like Ellsworth Kelly, whose work fills up four galleries, and Andy Warhol.

Director of SFMOMA, Neal Benezra, stated that “the museum was a victim of its own success”; after receiving the influx of artwork from the Fisher collection, Benezra realized that “the museum could not do justice to the public or to the art unless it had a larger space.”

After deciding to expand, trustees and staff from SFMOMA traveled to interview a multitude of architecture firms to select one for the redesign. Eventually SFMOMA selected the Norwegian architecture firm, Snøhetta, after visiting their Oslo Opera House. Benezra and others from SFMOMA responded well to the open, glass facade of this structure. They believed the design of the opera house was “in sync with a core value of SFMOMA: making the museum as open, accessible, and generous as possible.”

During the renovation, Benezra, with his hallmark innovative approach, initiated the SFMOMA On The Go program to preserve the museum’s vital role in the San Francisco art scene. Originally, SFMOMA had looked for an interim site, but soon discovered that the renovation offered the unique opportunity to redefine SFMOMA’s relationship with the public. Over two and a half years, the museum exhibited nineteen shows around the Bay Area; the museum lent pieces to the Asian Art Museum and Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. SFMOMA installed Mark di Suvero’s metal sculptures near the Golden Gate Bridge and commissioned new pieces for the city of Los Altos. In fact, the museum’s current slogan is, “closed for construction, yet more open than ever.”

Both the new collection as well as the revitalized architecture will invite interaction and participation from visitors.

Many criticized SFMOMA’s original building, designed in 1988 by Mario Botta, for being overly strong and closed off; therefore, SFMOMA wanted to highlight inclusivity in the new Snøhetta structure.

The museum will promote this by sharing the art and the space with youth — when the museum opens on May14,admissionwillbefreeforall visitors eighteen and under. SFMOMA will also be working more closely with San Francisco Unified School District to include teachers and classes. Before the museum temporarily closed, they hosted around 18,000 school visits per year; they will now aim for 55,000 guided tours and group visits. There are now school-only entrances on Minna street.

43,000 feet of free gallery space will invite, include, and welcome all visitors. This space features a steel sculpture by Richard Serra, a wall drawing titled Loopy Doopy by Sol LeWitt, and an Alexander Calder mobile in the Botta atrium. Furthermore, the senior curators of the museum will work with members of the community to find pieces that make a difference in San Francisco. The museum will also have a new restaurant, In Situ, which will include art walls for commissioned work.

SFMOMA under construction photo by Henrik Kam, photo courtesy of SFMOMA

SFMOMA under construction photo by Henrik Kam, photo courtesy of SFMOMA

Lotte Kaefer of EHDD, the local design firm that worked on the project, mentioned that the building’s strong connection to the city will draw people in. Local pedestrians are immediately welcomed by a large stairway and pathways that mimic the streets of San Francisco; in fact, there are entrances on every side of the museum.

Snøhetta’s organic and lightweight concrete facade is inspired by the climate of San Francisco, specifically the fog. Benezra says that, “the facade has a sense of the landscape; there is a wonderful rippling quality and the play with light and shadow is spectacular.” The natural elements of the city are further introduced through the multitude of glass walls and skylights; natural light enters all throughout the museum.

Pedestrians are further ushered into the museum by the fluidity between indoor and outdoor spaces. Kaefer described one of the main outdoor areas, the sculpture terrace. She said that the outdoor space boasts the largest native plant wall in San Francisco, which stretches from Minna to Natoma street.

Numerous Alexander Calder mobiles (one of the most historic artists represented in the Fisher collection) will be displayed throughout the terrace. This terrace adds an element of greenery to the museum, as it is difficult to find outdoor spaces in an urban environment.

As exhibited in the native plant wall that collects water, Snøhetta and EHDD were strongly committed to utilizing environmentally conscious policies. In fact, the new building is LEED Gold certification and has a 47% reduction in energy use and a 60% decrease in potable water use from the much smaller, old Botta building. On top of this, the design firms opted to use local materials when possible, like wood. New LED lighting will also help save energy and better light the gallery spaces.

As mentioned, most of the first two floors of the museum will be free to the public. One of the main attractions will be Schwab Hall, which includes the Serra sculpture and has an arrangement of benches for visitors to observe the space. Starting on the second floor, some of the galleries will be ticket-only. The second floor will include visitor- favorites from the old collection, like Marth Rothko’s “No. 14” and and Matisse’s “Semme Au Chapeau.”

An angular view of the Snøhetta structure photo by Elena Moore

An angular view of the Snøhetta structure photo by Elena Moore

Next, the third floor, named the Pritzker Center for Photography, will host the photography collection, totaling 17,800 pieces. This floor will also have the previously mentioned Calder gallery, a coffee bar, and the native plant wall with 50,000 plants. On floors four through six, you will find the bulk of the Fisher Collection displayed along with panoramic views of San Francisco that visitors can observe through window-seats and terraces.

Although the architectural styles of the Mario Botta building and the Snøhetta building are quite different, Benezra mentioned that the interior transition is seamless; he claims that at some points the difference between the Botta and Snøhetta galleries is undetectable.

Janet Bishop, the curator of painting and sculpture, mentioned that the new SFMOMA will aim to find a beneficial balance between traveling exhibits and a permanent collection. Since their collection and size have greatly increased,

SFMOMA will be seen as a major national and international center for the arts. As its own collections grow in depth and quality, other museums are interested in borrowing works, which gives SFMOMA the chance to borrow in return.

SFMOMA’s new, textured façade photo by Elena Moore

SFMOMA’s new, textured façade photo by Elena Moore

To curate the world- famous SFMOMA collection, Benezra initiated the Campaign for Art program in 2008. Since San Francisco is home to some of the greatest painting and photography collections in the world, SFMOMA negotiated with art collectors to ultimately borrow 3,000 pieces from 200 collectors. Benezra believes that these new additions will enhance the collection in a powerful way.

Bishop shared her experiences as a curator at the SFMOMA, where she has worked for most of her life. She explained that part of her job is to identify trends around the Bay Area that will spark the interests of visitors. Currently, she is curating an exhibit that compares the works of Henri Matisse and Richard Diebenkorn.

Bishop also described a few of her favorite pieces that will be exhibited in the new space. One is an eleven feet high, hanging crochet wire piece done by Ruth Asawa, whose work has been exhibited at the SFMOMA since the 1970’s. The sculpture’s hanging state results in shadows that according to Bishop, make the piece feel alive.

Bishop is also excited to welcome a self portrait by Dorothea Tanning, a Surrealist artist. This painting portrays the painter along with a dramatic, Arizonan landscape. Women are often underrepresented in historic museum collection; thus, this piece highlights SFMOMA’s commitment to exhibiting female artists.

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About Elena Moore

Elena, a junior at Lick-Wilmerding High School, is one of the co-editors of the Arts and Leisure section of the Paper Tiger. Along with writing, she is an avid reader and recently finished the Elena Ferrante series (which she highly recommends). In her free time, she enjoys working at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, eating delicious and local food, and spending time walking around San Francisco.

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