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SFMOMA, BAMscape and the Ever Expanding, Expansive Museum
by Georgia Fee


Far-flung travelers and the local intelligentsia, nervous families with bored children and culturally curious undergraduates, the odd teacher and the passionate amateur, the forced schoolchild and the retiree with time to kill, as well of course, tourists, each with separate agendas, cross the threshold of museums everywhere including San Francisco.

One of the first, serious public art museums in the modern era, the Uffizi cracked its doors to the hoi polloi in 1765, easily a hot spot for Grand Tourists, and a boon to the Mannerists who sold them art that looked a little like what they just saw from the old masters. Museums ever since have had their identities sliced and diced to be just about everything for everybody. One function that every museum everywhere would like to brag is tourist destination. Pop-urbanist Richard Florida has been on the road for a long time hawking his ideas about culture as an economic engine, especially for tourism (one offshoot is oft-repeated Bilbao Effect, where a shitty industrial town can become a world tourist site with the installation of a nifty museum building by a “starchitect”).

All of this museum-going creates such things as lists of Top 10s and Best ofs and Off-the-Beatens of every would-be tour guide and travel bookseller. Take for example TripAdvisor’s list of Top 10 museums based on visitor statistics. It is safe to conclude that these institutions have somehow collected and promoted themselves into the stratosphere of popularity:

  1. Musee du Louvre, Paris, France
  2. Vatican Museums, Vatican City, Rome, Italy
  3. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
  4. J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles, California
  5. Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France
  6. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
  7. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
  8. Tate Modern, London, England
  9. Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain
  10. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In contemplating the role of museums (museology for professionals), I came across an interesting article by David Fleming, Director, National Museums Liverpool, from his keynote address at the November 2005 Conference on Managing Change in Museums. Fleming states:


I would argue that essentially there is little that is totally new in museums activity beyond a massive change in our attitude towards audiences, which might best be described as one of total inclusion, that is of all the public, not just a narrow sector. It is this change in attitude that has given rise to a new approach to our work, most especially in collecting, exhibiting, promotion, advocacy and partnership, learning and helping effect social change…

So museums can be the crossroads, where plumber meets philosopher, and everyone comes together around art...what a hopeful, though demanding, directive.

Museums can also be places of contention and dispute where taste wars and cultural politics play themselves out. I will never forget watching a loud argument between several apparently un-related visitors during the Clyfford Still exhibition at SFMOMA in the mid-70s. It was the first time I witnessed first-hand the propensity of art to elicit outrage and controversy (thinking back on it now, I cannot image what they were arguing about…) This memory and many others were brought back during my recent visit to SFMOMA.

Founded in 1935, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (then simply called Museum of Art) opened its doors on Van Ness Avenue. Expanded and expanding, this year, SFMOMA is celebrating its 75th Anniversary with a yearlong series of exhibitions and events called 75 Years of Looking Forward (a catchy enough title) with artist talks, curatorial conversations, performances, private and public receptions, and of course, fundraising. All in all, a nice bit of museum marketing.

Walking through the various floors at SFMOMA, from The Anniversary Show to the Focus on Artists, and all the other offerings, I found myself pulled here and there by everything from Diego Rivera to Brice Marden, Jay De Feo to Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Group shows are like that and mega group shows even more so. Without the time to go back and back, I usually come out of them feeling oversaturated but wanting more. I had a little memory lane stroll, recalling the great shows I have seen at SFMOMA, and did my share of complaining about the lack of this or that.

I don’t know whether this 75th anniversary blowout will serve them well in terms of dollars and bodies, and I certainly could imagine many other ways of handling this kind of show (75 artists, 75 of the greatest hits from their collection, thematic exhibitions that reveal a point of view rather a potpourri or simply a better job at navigating us through the history of this museum’s leadership and mission). Whatever its failings, I walked out onto the street with a renewed commitment to SFMOMA in particular and to museum-going in general.

Museums seem to be under greater and greater demands to mount the next blockbuster show, develop the next audience magnet, become ever more so, everything to everybody. A troubling task given the various needs built into the 21st century museum: entertainment and scholarship, money and merit. With increased sophistication and skill, museums are mixing marketing events within their programming and SFMOMA seems to be mixing and marketing with the best of them. With its 75th Anniversary under way, the museum has announced a collection deal with the Fishers (after their failed bid to build a museum in the Presidio and just before Don Fisher’s passing) as well as $250 million downpayment on a planned expansion. Does the city need more museums or just a bigger one? Whatever the answer, the bigger museum bodes well for future locals and travelers who pass through its precincts.

Across the Bay at BAM/PFA (the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives), there was another kind of mix and match going on, namely the unveiling of the unfortunately titled BAMscape. I had the special pleasure of being one of the first visitors to stretch out on the BAMscape, the newly commissioned sculpture-cum-bleachers structure by architect and design innovator, Thom Faulders, which has been created specifically for Gallery B in the central atrium of Mario Ciampi's building.

Bright, rolling orange waves now stretch throughout this open expanse at BAM, waiting to be filled with students, visitors and others. The undulating forms of BAMscape allow visitors (or should I say inhabitants?) to plug in and linger, find a little alcove to curl up, gather for discussion, or partake in any of the numerous yet-to-be-discovered activities. Part art installation, part furniture, part stage, BAMscape is another audience-expander in the vein of stretching the role of the museum from that of collecting, preserving and exhibiting, to multi-purpose cultural hub. One can almost trill off marketing slogans: Take your shoes off and climb onto BAMscape. Where hanging out meets art history. Etc.

As museums expand their square-footage and their missions, the beneficiaries are us, the public, so long as ticket prices stay reasonable (which in many places they’re not), these expansions to compete for our attention in a crowded field, hopefully give us the space, relatively peaceful, culturally challenging, and economically centering that every city needs.

--Georgia Fee

(Images top-bottom: Image of Uffizi, are copyright © dotFlorence Srl 1999 - 2010, Photo credit: Marco Delapierre and Paolo Ramponi; Image Outside the Tate Modern from ArtSlant archives; Image of SFMOMA from iaskart; Jackson Pollock, Guardians of the Secret, 1943; oil on canvas; Collection SFMOMA, Albert M. Bender Collection, Albert M. Bender Bequest Fund purchase; © Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Thom Faulders / Faulders Studio: BAMscape, 2009, Berkeley Art Museum. All images courtesy of rightful owners)

Posted by Georgia Fee on 2/8/10

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