The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is a major modern and contemporary art museum and San Francisco landmark.
It opened in 1935 under founding director Grace L. McCann Morley (1935–1958) as the San Francisco Museum of Art, the first museum on the West Coast devoted solely to 20th-century art. For its first sixty years, the museum occupied upper floors of the War Memorial Veterans Building in the Civic Center. In a major transformation and expansion, in 1995 the museum moved to its current location adjacent to Yerba Buena Gardens in the SOMA district and its iconic architectural showpiece facility designed by Mario Botta.
The museum has in its collection: important works by Henri Matisse, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Mark Rothko, Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois; major holdings of Paul Klee, Clyfford Still, Philp Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly, and the post-minimalists; photographers ranging from Fox Talbot and Watkins through Stieglitz, Weston, and Adams to contemporary work; and important collections of architecture and design and media arts.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is a dynamic center for modern and contemporary art. The Museum strives to engage and inspire a diverse range of audiences by pursuing an innovative program of exhibitions, education, publications, and collections activities. International in scope, while reflecting the distinctive character of California and San Francisco Bay Area, the Museum explores compelling expressions of visual culture.
The first museum on the West Coast devoted solely to 20th-century art, the San Francisco Museum of Art opened in 1935 under the direction of Grace L. McCann Morley. The Museum, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1985, rose to international prominence under the leadership of Henry T. Hopkins (1974–86) and John R. Lane (1987-1997). "Modern" was added to the Museum's title in 1975 to describe its purview more accurately.
Between 1987 and 1997, under director John R. Lane the Museum established two new curatorial departments — architecture and design and media arts — and elevated the position of director of education to a full curatorial role. SFMOMA began collecting on an international scale and undertook an increasingly active special exhibitions program, organizing traveling exhibitions such as Sigmar Polke (1991), Jeff Koons (1991) and Dorothea Lange, American Photographs (1994), all the while building its new facility in the burgeoning South of Market district, designed by renowned Swiss architect Mario Botta. On the musuem’s sixtieth anniversary, January 18, 1995, SFMOMA opened its new building, which finally provided space for simultaneous display of special exhibitions and its permanent collection.
Under David A. Ross, director of SFMOMA from 1998 to 2001, the museum acquired a number of major works of art for the permanent collection, including 14 seminal pieces by Robert Rauschenberg; 22 important works by Ellsworth Kelly; René Magritte’s Les Valeurs Personelles, (Personal Values; 1952); two important late paintings by Piet Mondrian: Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue (1935–42) and New York City 2 (Unfinished), 1941; a lead airplane sculpture by Anselm Kiefer entitled Melancholia (1990–91); and Marcel Duchamp’s iconic Fountain (1917/1964). The Museum made a name for itself collecting websites and digital projects and simultaneously presented the pathbreaking exhibitions 010101: Art in Technological Times and Points of Departure: Connecting with Contemporary Art. The former modeled the impact of digital culture on the processes of art-making; the latter prototyped the museum of the future, with interactive educational technologies integrated in the galleries alongside the artworks.
Neal Benezra succeeded David Ross as director in 2002. The following year SFMOMA presented the phenomenally successful Marc Chagall exhibition, hosting more than 115,000 visitors in October—more than any other month in its history. Also in 2003 the Museum’s Koret Visitor Education Center, the first educational facility at an American art museum to offer drop-in public access, opened to the visiting public on a full-time basis. Among the nearly 600 works acquired in 2004, of particular note were Suspension of Disbelief (for Marine) (1991–92), a video installation by Gary Hill; Tide Table (2003), a film and suite of related drawings by the South African artist William Kentridge; and Atrabiliarios (1992–2004), a mixed-media installation by the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo. Prentice and Paul Sack made a promised gift of nearly 800 photographs from their private collection to the Prentice and Paul Sack Photographic Trust.
Prominent exhibitions SFMOMA has organized in recent years that have traveled around the world include: Sol LeWitt, A Retrospective (2000), Ansel Adams at 100 (2001), Eva Hesse (2002), Diane Arbus, Revelations (2003), Richard Tuttle, The Art of Richard Tuttle (2005), Chuck Close, Self Portraits (2005), Robert Bechtle, A Retrospective (2005), Shomei Tomatsu, Skin of the Nation (2006). Upcoming is the first American retrospective of Olafur Eliasson, slated to open at SFMOMA in September 2007. In 2008 the museum revised its public photography policy to allow non-flash photography for personal use of the permanent collection and some special exhibitions.
The Building: Architectural overview
For the first 60 years of SFMOMA's existence, the Museum was housed in the Beaux Arts–style War Memorial Veterans Building, located in San Francisco's Civic Center. In January 1995 the Museum celebrated its 60th anniversary by opening a new building.
The Museum's current building on Third Street was designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta, representing Botta’s first U.S. project and first museum; Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum, Inc. served as the architect of record. The 225,000-square-foot building, one of the largest new American art museums of the decade and the second largest single structure in the United States devoted to modern art, replaces the Museum’s former location at the War Memorial Veterans Building. The Museum is located in San Francisco’s downtown south of Market area (SOMA) and is surrounded by numerous other cultural institutions, including the Center for the Arts at Yerba Buena Gardens.
A Building of Modernist Design
Mario Botta, an internationally acclaimed architect based in Lugano, Switzerland, conceived a building for SFMOMA in the tradition of Modernist design. The building features an impressive stepped-back brick-and-stone facade that is distinguished by a soaring truncated cylinder emerging from the roof. To the rear, the building consists of a five-story tower that houses galleries as well as Museum offices.
Interior Spaces and Facilities
Reflecting the influence of architect Louis I. Kahn, the building is flooded with natural light and offers generous open spaces. The full-height central atrium court illuminated by the skylit cylinder and crossed by a steel skybridge is a key feature of the interior space. In addition, the skylit roofs offer generous natural light to many galleries.
Visitors are drawn from the ground floor atrium court up to the four floors of galleries via a grand staircase. The first gallery floor, with 16-foot ceilings, houses selections from the permanent collection and provides space for the architecture and design program. An intimate second gallery floor displays photographs and works on paper. The top two gallery floors, with lofty 18- and 23.5-foot ceilings, accommodate special temporary exhibitions and large-scale contemporary art from the Museum’s permanent collection.
On October 12, 2002, the Museum unveiled the 7,000 square foot Koret Visitor Education Center. Situated at the heart of the Museum adjacent to the galleries on the second floor, it is the first educational facility at an American art museum to offer drop-in public access as well as a full calendar of scheduled programs and activities.
SFMOMA Rooftop Garden
In 2005, seeking ideas for the display of the Museum’s growing number of large-scale sculptures, SFMOMA invited six innovative Bay Area firms — Mark Cavagnero Associates, envelopeA+D, Fougeron Architecture, Jensen & Macy Architects, Kuth/Ranieri Architects, and Pfau Architecture — to participate in a competition to design a rooftop sculpture garden atop the SFMOMA parking garage. Their brief: to transform the roof of the SFMOMA Garage into a sculpture garden accessible from the fifth-floor galleries. On May 5th, 2006, SFMOMA announced Jensen & Macy Architects as the winner of the competition. The studio’s striking proposal situates the sculpture garden as an integral part of the Museum’s exhibition space, with a cantilevered window overlook from—and back into—the existing fifth floor galleries. The new 14,400 square feet will include a transparent, sheltering pavilion and will offer ample space for the exhibition of rarely seen sculptures in the Museum’s holdings, including notable works by Alexander Calder, Alberto Giacometti, and Henry Moore as well as Louise Bourgeois, Mark di Suvero, Ellsworth Kelly, Bruce Nauman, and Barnett Newman. The sculpture garden opened to the public in the spring of 2009 and includes a cafe.
Department of Painting and Sculpture
The painting and sculpture collection is distinguished by major works by artists associated with the American Abstract Expressionist School, notably Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn. It has strengths in Fauvism, particularly the works of Henri Matisse; Mexican painting, particularly key works by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo; and the art of the San Francisco Bay Area. The Museum is also widely known for the important gifts and promised gifts of works by Paul Klee from Dr. Carl Djerassi and the Djerassi Art Trust; and for its very active contemporary art acquisitions program. John Caldwell served as curator of painting and sculpture from 1988 to 1993. Gary Garrels was the Elise S. Haas chief curator and curator of painting and sculpture from 1993 to 2000. Madeleine Grynsztejn followed Garrels in the Haas chair as Senior Curator of Painting & Schulpture until December 2007, notably organizing retrospectives of artists Richard Tuttle and Olafur Eliasson and adding important works by artists such as Giorgio Morandi, Gordon Matta-Clark, Robert Smithson, Ann Hamilton, Doris Salcedo, and Kiki Smith to the collection. Janet Bishop was appointed the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation associate curator of painting and sculpture in 1992 and, in 2000, was promoted to the position of curator of painting and sculpture
Department of Photography
More than 50 years ago, the Museum was one of the first to recognize photography as an art form. This early focus was initiated by Curator John Humphrey (1935-78). Under the direction of Van Deren Coke (1979-87), the Department of Photography gained international stature. The photography department is the only one whose purview reaches back before 1900, to the invention of this quintessentially modern medium in 1839. The collection includes especially fine holdings of works by Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, the German avant-garde artists of the 1920s, the European Surrealists of the 1930s and 19th century photographers including William Henry Fiox Talbot, Roger Fenton, Julie Margaret Cameron, Carleton Watkins, and Eadweard Muybridge. Sandra S. Phillips has served as curator of photography since 1987, and as senior curator since 1999.
Department of Architecture and Design
In 1983, SFMOMA became the first West Coast museum to establish a Department of Architecture and Design. The department was established under the guidance of former director Henry T. Hopkins (1974–1985) to collect, exhibit and educate in the disciplines of architecture and design with emphasis on the West Coast and Pacific Basin regions. Paolo Polledri was named SFMOMA’s first curator of architecture and design in 1987, organizing such landmark exhibitions as Visionary San Francisco (1990) and Shin Takamatsu (1993). Polledri was succeeded in 1995 by Aaron Betsky, among whose exhibitions were Icons: Magnets of Meaning (1997); Far Out: Bay Area Design, 1967-1973 (1999); Tiborocity: Design and Undesign by Tibor Kalman, 1979-1999 (1999), co-organized by Kalman; Sitting on the Edge: Modernist Design from the Collection of Michael and Gabrielle Boyd (1999); and Design Afoot: Athletic Shoes 1995-2000 (2000). In 1999 Betsky expanded the architecture and design department's curatorial purview to include digital projects and began collecting Web sites as design objects.
Joseph Rosa was named the Helen Hilton Raiser Curator of Architecture and Design in January 2002, becoming the first to occupy the newly endowed curatorship. With a keen interest in digital art, Rosa collected a number of digitally produced drawings, images, and models by such architectural innovators as Preston Scott Cohen, R+Sie, Kolatan / Mac Donald, and Greg Lynn. In 2006 Henry Urbach succeeded Joseph Rosa, serving as the new Helen Hilton Raiser curator of architecture and design.
Department of Media Arts
In early 1988, the Department of Media Arts was established to develop a program of exhibitions and educational events related to video, media-dependent performance art, and film. Robert R. Riley served as the department's first curator, focusing on video’s roots in single channel and installation works exploring the phenomenology of perception. Benjamin Weil succeeded Riley, serving as curator of media arts from 2000 to 2005. Since its inception, the media arts department has grown to reflect the diversity of current art production technologies, ranging from video and digital film experiments to Web projects. Rudolf Frieling was appointed SFMOMA’s curator of media arts in January 2006.
Department of Education and Public Programs
As a complement to its exhibition schedule, a full program of lectures, special events, and activities targeted for seniors and children comprise SFMOMA's educational outreach efforts. These interpretive programs are complemented by a corps of over 200 docents who lead tours and other activities related to the Museum's collections and exhibitions. Beginning in 1995, under the leadership of John Weber, the first Leanne and George Roberts Curator of Education and Public Programs, and Associate Curator Peter Samis, the Education department’s Interactive Educational Technologies (IET) team has distinguished itself through the innovative use of new technologies as a mean of enhancing visitor understanding of modern and contemporary art, receiving a number of important media and technology awards. Notably, they have developed Making Sense of Modern Art, an interactive online and in-gallery feature that offers an extensive and engaging guide to modern and contemporary artworks in the Museum's permanent collection. IET features have won six Muse Awards from the American Association of Museums, a people’s voice Webby Award for the site Bill Viola, prizes from I.D and Communication Arts magazines, and a Gold Apple Award from the National Educational Media Network. A full list of SFMOMA’s award-winning IET programs is available at http://www.sfmoma.org/education/edu_online.html.
In 2005, the museum also inaugurated SFMOMA Artcasts, its podcast art-zine, co-produced with Antenna Audio and now published on an 8-week cycle. In 2006, SFMOMA was recognized as a center of excellence by the New Media Consortium. In 2007, SFMOMA Artcasts were recognized with a Best of the Web award in the category "Innovative and Experimental" at the conference Museums & the Web.
Dominic Willsdon succeeded John Weber in January 2006 as the Leanne and George Roberts Curator of Education and Public Programs, with a brief to expand Education Department activities through an ambitious mix of film programming, live and participatory art events. SFMOMA Scavengers, a city-wide activity organized by British artist Joshua Sofaer, mobilized teams throughout the city in a found object hunt that culiminated in a 3-day exhibition at the museum in October 2006.
Conservation and Research Library/Archives
The Elise S. Haas Conservation Studio is a major West Coast facility specializing in the ever increasing treatment of modern and contemporary paintings, works on paper and objects made with a variety of materials and techniques, both analog and digital. In addition to caring for objects in the Museum's permanent collection, the laboratory offers professional services to other institutions. Jill Sterrett has served as head of conservation since 2000. In 2005 she was appointed Director of Conservation and Collections.
The Museum's Research Library comprises more than 80,000 items, including monographs, exhibition catalogues, and general art resources, as well as 1,920 serials titles. Also included are the Tillim Collection and Margery Mann Collection of books on the history of photomechanical reproduction in photography and photography more generally, the Skowhegan Lecture Archives, and a collection of artist books. The Library is open by appointment to outside scholars and independent researchers. The SFMOMA Archives comprises the institutional history of the museum, its administration, curatorial departments, exhibition schedule, etc. The Archives is accessible, by application, to serious scholarly researchers.