Coming soon: a new SFMOMA

  • by Roberto Friedman
  • Tuesday October 27, 2015
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Artist's rendering of the renovated 3rd St.<br>entrance to SFMOMA. Photo: Snohetta/Steelblue, SFMOMA
Artist's rendering of the renovated 3rd St.
entrance to SFMOMA. Photo: Snohetta/Steelblue, SFMOMA

A major Bay Area cultural institution has announced its return. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will reopen on May 14, 2016, after 31 months of closure. Last week Out There was part of a hard-hat tour of the expansion, still under construction. The Snohetta-designed space incorporates the renovated 1995 Mario Botta building, nearly triples the exhibition space, and offers impressive new entrances and public spaces, including an entire ground floor open to the public without gallery admission.

Director Neil Benezra said the museum leadership has had both an art goal, the building of a truly great museum; and a public purpose, "to mean more to more people." To that end, the museum has built its new space to accommodate the 1,150-piece Fisher collection, one of the most extensive post-WWII art collections in the world, and motivated the donation of 3,000 works to the museum in their Campaign for Art.

Facade of the SFMOMA expansion (detail) by Snohetta. Photo: Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA

Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture Gary Garrels gave us a virtual overview of the seven floors of art that will be open to the public in the new complex (floors 8-10 will house staff offices), then Snohetta architect and founding partner Craig Dykers gave us an actual tour of the new galleries and spaces. We have to admit, we were among the museum's biggest detractors when they announced that the building would be closed for three years during the makeover. Why couldn't they install their permanent collection in a warehouse open to the public, as NYC's MoMA did during their renovation? The On the Go series of collaborative exhibitions were, we felt, overhyped in terms of how much of the collection was on display (a miniscule fraction of their holdings). Also, we were the only member of the generally cowed Bay Area arts press to ask impertinent questions at their closing announcement, such as, How many people on staff (museum guards, installation crew, press relations) are being laid off during the interim? They never answered that one, because they didn't have to. They're a private nonprofit, not a public institution such as the Fine Arts Museums/SF.

Finally, we felt (still feel) that the Snohetta design in some ways violates Botta's original vision for SFMOMA. The grand staircase in the 3rd St. entrance has been demolished even though it was an integral part of the building's atrium. Every up-and-coming architect would like to erase an existing structure in favor of his or her own vision. It's the role of the museum director to stand up for his building's unique features (i.e., the Botta staircase), and in this case, Benezra let the original architect and museumgoing public down.

But we're letting go of our preservationist stance. We're being Zen about it. The actual integration of the Botta building with the Snohetta addition is seamless, the new facilities impressive. The signature oculus has been opened up and brings in more natural light. As Dykers put it, you can really see the Platonic forms of the Botta architecture stand out against the organic forms of the Snohetta building. It ought to be a spectacular rebirth. We're looking forward to the reopening.