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San Francisco's New SFMOMA: An Expanded Museum Ushers in a New Era

What you need to know about the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Since it first opened in 1935, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has acted as a cultural hub in a city known for its boundary-pushing creativity and a region renowned for its wild, natural beauty. With growth outpacing the institution’s initial home after its diamond anniversary, a new building by Swiss architect Mario Botta was constructed on the same site and reopened in 1995. Within two decades, though, the impressive museum with 33,000-plus holdings began to outgrow its second stately home.

What to do when an institution blooms larger than its allotted space? For a major museum, moving to another facility isn’t a simple fix. In the case of the SFMOMA, the decision to physically expand the museum’s footprint began with a bold, unprecedented decision. In 2013, the museum closed its doors, choosing to forego the typical partially-open-under-construction scenario most gallery goers have experienced at some point. Instead, over the next few years while new blueprints were drawn and construction began in earnest, the SFMOMA spearheaded an innovative partnership with other Bay Area institutions, sharing parts of its collection for collaborative shows played host to by partner institutions all over Northern California.

After the highly anticipated redesign led by Norwegian architecture and design firm Snøhetta, the massive museum reopened in May 2016. The several-hundred-thousand-feet expansion blends seamlessly with the original Botta brick structure, making the SFMOMA among the country’s largest modern art museums. The white, rippling façade—a homage to both the bay and the city’s iconic fog—is a marvel, dotted with long, wide balconies where museum patrons can take in additional artworks or simply a breath of fresh air.


Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terraceat San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace featuring Alexander Calder’s sculpture Maquette for Trois Disques (Three Disks), formerly Man (1967). (©Henrik Kam, Courtesy SFMOMA)

There are entire galleries devoted to some of the 1,100-plus primarily postwar pieces on a century-long loan from the esteemed Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, owned by the founders of The Gap. The new Pritzker Center for Photography is the largest gallery, with research and interpretive space devoted solely to photography of any art museum in the nation. The family-friendly Koret Education Center hosts small-scale exhibitions and classroom visits for local schools.

Making the museum accessible to all was a prime consideration in the renovation. Accordingly, entry is free in perpetuity for anyone under age 18. There are large artworks in public spaces that don’t require ticketed entry, such as San Francisco native Richard Serra’s half-million-pound steel maze sculpture, “Sequence,” around which the Howard Street Gallery was built. There’s also a free iOS app by design firm Detour, which uses indoor positioning technology to offer customized audio tours for anyone using a smartphone to navigate the new nooks and crannies.

Roberts Family Gallery featuring Richard Serra’s Sequence (2006) at SFMOMA
Roberts Family Gallery featuring Richard Serra’s Sequence (2006). (©Henrik Kam, Courtesy SFMOMA)

As an institution, the museum has always championed local work, as well as photography before the medium was considered fine art by other institutions. When it was established in 1935, the SFMOMA was the first West Coast museum devoted solely to showcasing modern and contemporary art of the 20th century. Though the museum’s focus was always apparent, the word “modern” was not added to the institution’s official title until 1975.

The SFMOMA has a rich history of hosting landmark shows, including the first West Coast exhibition of Henri Matisse’s paintings and sculptures in 1936. That same year, the museum became one of the first to recognize photography as a fine art when it began building its now formidable collection. In 1945, the museum played host to abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock’s first solo exhibition. Over the years, it has also showcased what has since become iconic work from innovative San Franciscan and Californian photographers, including the influential Group f/64. The group of seven included Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Ansel Adams.

California and the West Photography from the Campaign for Art exhibition at SFMOMA
California and the West Photography from the Campaign for Art exhibition. (©Joe Fletcher, Courtesy SFMOMA)

Photography curator Sandra Phillips said the three-year period of expansion helped the museum expand not just in square footage but also in the breadth of its collections.

“The museum’s closure really helped us develop,” she said. “It gave us time to consider what our goals were and gave us time to strategize.”

Specific collections are given new room to breathe in the new gallery spaces, including a seventh floor devoted entirely to cutting-edge contemporary art. The SFMOMA established its Department of Media Arts in 1987, the first department of its kind at any U.S. institution. Since then, the museum has been a pioneer in collecting, preserving and presenting media art.

“The media arts collection embraces the diversity of artistic media practices, ranging from slide, sound, video and film and performance to digital and computer-based works with software and user participation,” said Rudolf Frieling, the museum’s curator of media arts.

Two new media gallery spaces on the seventh floor offer a mix of multimedia disciplines across video, sound collage and hologram art.

“For the first time,” added Frieling, “the museum can exhibit continuously works from the permanent collection while also organizing temporary exhibitions.”

The Campaign for Art Contemporary exhibition at SFMOMA
The Campaign for Art Contemporary exhibition. (©Iwan Baan, Courtesy SFMOMA)

Even the eatery options at the SFMOMA have changed. The fifth-floor cafe offers light fare with the option to dine alfresco in the rooftop sculpture garden. On the ground level is In Situ, the brainchild of celebrated, three-Michelin-star chef Corey Lee, who borrowed the best recipes from his famous chef friends including Alice Waters and René Redzepi, to create a diverse, exciting menu that will change with the seasons.

Initially controversial, the museum’s closure was a useful pause. The in-between time, added photography curator Phillips, “permitted us to build on the past.”

Now, more than ever, the museum looks forward to a bright future.

The 1995 building designed by architect Mario Botta remains part of the structure.
The 1995 building designed by architect Mario Botta remains part of the structure. (©Snøhetta/Jon McNeal)