The New SFMOMA: A Museum for the Masses

After three years of renovations and expansion, and at a cost of $305 million dollars, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art opened its doors last month. The area around SOMA has become a hub for museums (Yerba Buena, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and the Museum of African Diaspora), and the new SFMOMA certainly qualifies as leader of the pack.

Since its opening, some critics have voiced concern over the museum’s overwhelming collection of blue chip art (e.g. pieces from the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection), with many saying that the 170,000 square feet of gallery space should include (and highlight) local artists and the neighborhood’s blue collar legacy. Yes, the museum is grand in scope and scale, but it’s also an unprecedented opportunity to view this type of art (33,000 pieces plus) under one roof.

Alexander Calder Motion Lab The Fisher Collection exhibition at SFMOMA; photo Iwan Baan, courtesy of SFMOMA

Photo: Alexander Calder Motion Lab The Fisher Collecction at SFMOMA; photo Iwan Baan, courtesy SFMOMA. 

With seven floors of permanent and rotating exhibits of modern and contemporary art, it’s considered the largest museum of its kind in the country. There’s no question that the curatorial departments will produce future exhibits highlighting San Francisco’s local arts scene and its unique position as the newest museum in a city that, at times, seems at odds with itself and its identity. What I experienced on a recent visit was a world-class museum in a world-class city—in our backyard.

Roberts Family Gallery featuring Richard Serra's Sequence (2006) at SFMOMA; photo: Henrik Cam; courtesy of SFMOMA

Photo: Roberts Family Gallery featuring Richard Serra's Sequence (2006); photo by Henrik Cam, courtesy of SFMOMA. 

Both the Third Street and Howard Street entrances allow visitors to enjoy 44,000 square feet of museum space free of charge. That includes Richard Serra’s 2006 spiral steel sculpture, Sequence. Once you venture one floor up, you’ll find the member services and ticketing area, a gift store, and numerous staff to help you get the most out of your visit.

Each floor holds surprises, from the third-floor outdoor sculpture garden with the country’s largest living wall to the fifth-floor Oculus Bridge, where visitors can walk from one exhibit to the next while being suspended high above the ground floor. These architectural elements enhance the interior’s bold design and create a super backdrop to some of the museum’s most influential artists like Calder, Koons, Warhol, Richter, and Lichtenstein.

The Campaign for Art Modern and Contemporary exhibition featuring a selection of chairs each of a single material; photo Iwan Baan, courtesy SFMOMA.

Photo: The Campaign for Art Modern and Contemporary exhibition featuring a selection of chairs each of a single material; photo by Iwan Baan, courtesy SFMOMA. 

There are currently 19 special exhibits on display including German Art after 1960, British Sculptors, and pieces of pop and figurative art that are a hit with the kids. The sixth-floor is home to Viktor, part of the museum’s Typeface to Interface exhibit. This scaleable drawing robot draws autonomously, blurring the lines between digital and analog art.

Those needing to refuel have three dining options: Sightglass at SFMOMA for coffee and pastries adjacent to the third-floor photography collection, Cafe 5 for salads, sandwiches, and lighter fare on the fifth floor’s pavilion (also accessible to the sculpture garden), and In Situ for Michelin-three- starred Chef Corey Lee’s interpretations of his peer’s global dishes (currently only open for lunch).

The new SFMOMA, view from Yerba Buena Gardens; photo Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA

Photo: The new SFMOMA, view from Yerba Buena Gardens; photo Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA. 

Tips for getting the most out of your visit:

  • Visit the website (www.sfmoma.org) to orient yourself with the art
  • Download the museum’s free app for a guided tour of the exhibits
  • Inquire about the day’s talks that run on various floors and cover specific pieces and artists
  • Avoid the long line at the elevators and walk the flight up from the second to third floor
  • Schedule rest stops at one of the several outdoor terraces or check out the seventh-floor screening room, which shows several different short films centered around various themes
  • Visit on a Thursday evening and enjoy the city views at dusk from the seventh-floor terrace

Admission is $25; seniors 65 and older $22; visitors ages 19 through 24 $19; free to visitors 18 and younger.

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