The massive new expansion of the San Francisco Museum of Art (SFMOMA) has, according to Time magazine’s Richard Lacayo, “transformed the City by the Bay into a premier destination for art.” The extraordinary new design, an easy walk from Union Square and across the street from the fountains, lawns, restaurants, and shops of Yerba Buena Gardens, has 170,000 square feet of gallery space—more than double the size of the original museum. And though the original SFMOMA, with eye-catching features like a bull’s-eye oculus on the front façade, was always a standout, the new $300 million redesign by Norwegian firm Snøhetta is downright breathtaking. A skin-like shell floats around the new addition, glittering in the sunlight. Outside terraces decorated with art invite you to linger and enjoy views of the buzzing urban scene that hums in the surrounding cityscape.
You can just walk through the expansion to enjoy the huge collection of Warhol lithographs, Calder mobiles, Jackson Pollock splatters, and other modern masterpieces on your own, but it’s so much better to have a savvy guide. Here, insider Ruth Berson, one of the museum’s deputy directors, helps you discover some of SFMOMA’s coolest features and shares her insights on the art, including the world-class collection donated by the late Donald Fischer and his wife, Doris. (They started a little company called The Gap.)
— Harriot Manley
With the new design, there are multiple entrances into SFMOMA, instead of just one at the original museum. Which one is the must-see entrance?
There’s something special from both entrances. Third Street has been our traditional entry, but it’s obvious to see that everything is new as soon as you step inside. The Museum Store on the left has been completely redesigned, and our new restaurant, In Situ, is on the right. And a new Calder mobile hangs there. As you come in the new entrance off Howard Street, there’s a marvelous view of Sequence by Richard Serra and behind it the Roman steps. The steps are intended for seating, so you can look at Sequence [a monumental steel sculpture]. Sitting on the steps is free, so you can come enjoy the space before you spring for a ticket. There’s free Wi-Fi too.
The living wall on SFMOMA’s third-floor terrace has some 19,000 plants, 21 of them native to the Bay Area.
If visitors only have time for a short visit, what should be on their hit list?
You don’t want to miss the green wall on the third-floor terrace. It has about 19,000 plants, 21 of them native to the Bay Area. Because it only gets about one hour of direct light per day, the wall mirrors plant life of the redwood forest understory, but vertical. Somebody saw a butterfly the other day. Also go to the outdoor sculpture terrace on the fifth floor, then look back at the city. It’s quite a view.
Where would you linger longest, if you had no time limit?
I love going to the second floor because it has so many of my old favorites. There’s Frida Kahlo’s Frida and Diego Rivera, works by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Femme au chapeau by Henri Matisse—it’s like the luxury of spending time with old friends. And I love watching the reactions of visitors when they see them too. It’s great people-watching here, and at the third-floor terrace. Sometimes I get a coffee there and just watch.
The new design incorporates lots of unique stairways. What’s the thinking behind them, and is there anything special about the design?
In creating the new space, we knew people were fit in the Bay Area, and that they’d be willing to climb. So we put in lots of stairs to help people get around. And it worked. You have a chance to travel through the space. The stairways have forced perspective: They’re narrower at the top so it feels like the space is even taller than it is.
What architectural features do you love?
The windows. They’re everywhere. We wanted to remind visitors of where they are, that it isn’t a generic place, that it’s got little alleys that are very much part of this South of Market part of San Francisco. The windows have window boxes where you can actually sit, enjoy the light, the view, and recoup to go on to next set of galleries.
Are any of the building’s materials unusual or unique?
The museum’s new exterior panels were designed to be concrete, but they would have required a lot of steel support. So Kreysler & Associates, a company in American Canyon [a small town east of San Francisco], made each of the 700 panels out of fiberglass-reinforced polymer. Each one is only three-sixteenths of an inch thick. Silicate crystals from Monterey County make the panels sparkle, and cause the creamy white panels to naturally change color throughout the day—sometimes blue or gray in shadow, sometimes warmer in the light.
Stepping into brilliantly colored restrooms—red, raspberry, chartreuse—is like rebooting your brain after so many white-box galleries.
What’s the most surprising design element?
The most surprising part of buildings are the restrooms. Every floor has a different color bathroom—all red, raspberry, chartreuse. We figured that after visitors have walked through a bunch of white-box galleries, people would be ready for some color. It gets their brains rebooted, like a palette cleanser for the eye.
Are there any cool tours or education centers?
Some people like to go through and see things on their own, some people like an app to hear content and maybe sync up with someone else. We have gallery guides on specific topics. So there are a number of ways to experience the museum. We also have some learning lounges, places to sit and have coffee, an education center, a film program, adult lectures and courses. There are lots of reasons to come to SFMOMA.
What can families do at SFMOMA?
We have a whole department that focuses on teaching children through hands-on art activities. We have guided tours for children, special family days, and activities like building a mobile, or creating a mask, or talking about line or form or sculpture.