San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Lonely Planet review for San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) was destined from the start in 1935 to be an eclectic, unconventional museum. But when it moved into architect Mario Botta’s light-filled brick box in 1995, it became clear just how far this museum was prepared to push the art world. The new museum showed its backside to New York and leaned full-tilt towards the western horizon, taking risks on then-unknowns like Matthew Barney and his poetic videos involving industrial quantities of Vaseline, and Olafur Eliasson’s outer-space installations that distort all sense of reality. Finally SFMOMA had room to launch international traveling shows by squeegee-wielding German painter Gerhardt Richter and great postwar Japanese photographers such as Shomei Tomatsu and Daido Moriyama. The 1995 reopening coincided with the tech boom, and new media art took off in the SFMOMA galleries at roughly the same time as new technologies in nearby South Park.
Collectors took notice of this new direction, and donations and promised gifts have begun transforming SFMOMA’s holdings to a multistory collection with room for emerging niches: video art, conceptual architecture, wall-drawing installations and relational art. But one constant is SFMOMA’s standout photography collection, which got the jump-start on other museums with works by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange and William Klein, and has continued acquiring compelling contemporary works to keep the collection fresh.
There are regular, free gallery tours, but exploring on your own gives you the thrill of discovery, which is what this museum is about. The 3rd-floor photography galleries are the place to begin, then up through the 4th- and 5th-floor major-contemporary exhibits, catching your breath outdoors at the 5th-floor rooftop sculpture garden. From here, work your way down through the galleries via the dramatic stairwell to espresso and strawberry-rhubarb crisp at the ground-floor cafe. Tack on additional time for the excellent SFMOMA shop.
If you can’t swing the admission price, wander into the main atrium for free and see the vibrant comic-book historical murals of Monticello, by Kerry James Marshall, for a quick hit of the MoMa’s curatorial vision.