The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Expansion 18.9.2013

Nikolai Sadik-Ogli

In August 2009, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) announced its plans for a comprehensive expansion project. After lengthy negotiations with the city, an extensive environmental review process with public comment and the selection of the appropriate architect, actual construction at the current building started with a groundbreaking ceremony on 29 May 2013. Before it closed on 2 June 2013, the museum marked the occasion by treating the public to four free days of admissions and celebratory events that included all night gallery access, a complete screening of Christian Marclay’s 24-hour movie The Clock (2010) and a rooftop party. Construction is expected to continue through early 2016.

Though it was not officially called “modern” until 1975, the museum was founded in 1935 as the first on the West Coast to be devoted to 20th century art. It has been at its current building, designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta with 59,500 square feet of gallery space, since 1995. Moving there helped transform the surrounding run-down neighborhood into a cultural area. That same year, SFMOMA became one of the first museums to launch an institutional website. Since then, its collections have doubled to include over 27,000 pieces, but only a few thousand of them can be displayed annually in its current galleries. Also, with 40,000 members and yearly attendance at 650,000, the need for expansion was considered urgent.

However, 2009 was also the year that a separate, 2-year long museum controversy finally ended in defeat. The founders of the clothing company The Gap, Doris and Donald Fisher, had since the 1970s amassed a collection of contemporary art that includes over 1,100 works by 185 major artists such as Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder and Roy Lichtenstein. In 2007, the Fishers proposed building a new museum in San Francisco’s Presidio to house the collection. Though the announcement was initially greeted as being positively rejuvenating, controversy quickly erupted because the park is an old, renovated military complex that still has a lot of natural space. Many in the Presidio Trust militantly wanted to preserve its uncluttered and green atmosphere, and environmental reports had suggested that the new museum would conflict with the area’s historical nature and traffic patterns.

After considerable debate, the Fishers finally abandoned their plans in 2009, and, just days before Mr. Fisher passed away, came to an agreement to loan the collection to the SFMOMA for 100 years. Though SFMOMA has openly described the loan as the “catalyst” behind the expansion project, some have questioned the idea of expanding a museum in order to house a loaned, private collection that is not a permanent gift. A sampling of the Fisher Collection was exhibited in 2010, and SFMOMA has since highlighted the fact that, after the expansion, Richard Serra’s Sequence (2006) will be exhibited in a space that will make it visible from the outside even when the museum is closed.

Another interesting reason that the present expansion project was able to begin successfully was the result of a special deal that SFMOMA negotiated with the City. The museum purchased land and constructed a modern fire station in exchange for receiving the nearby older station that will be incorporated into its new building. The new station, designed by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects , opened in March to great acclaim.

The 235,000 square foot, seven-level addition to the museum is intended to create the largest amount of gallery space devoted to modern art in America. The expansion will include 142,000 square feet of flexible indoor and outdoor gallery space and 15,000 square feet of free-access public space. The design, which has been touted as a piece of art itself, will merge with the current building and feature a large, open style that incorporates natural light and utilizes an environmentally sensitive approach to reduce energy costs, water use and wastewater. New terraces, public promenades and performance venues will be opened. There will be a new conservation studio directly adjacent to the galleries that is intended to increase public access to behind-the-scenes activities. In particular, the facility will also feature new resources directed at media arts and new digital initiatives to increase public interactivity and engagement. For example, during its closing celebration, SFMOMA unveiled a public “art app-arition” (developed by Will Pappenheimerand John Craig Freeman) that allowed visitors to see a virtual image of the renovations planned for certain areas inside and outside of the museum. There will also be a new gallery devoted to photography, as SFMOMA was among the first museums to exhibit photography as an art form and now holds over 16,000 items.

Norwegian firm Snøhetta created the design. Founded in 1989 and led by Craig Dykers and Kjel Thorsen, the company is based in Oslo and New York and has worked on a number of prominent projects, such as the Times Square reconstruction in New York and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt. It practices what has been described by the Wall Street Journal as a multidisciplinary “architecture of engagement” that sees buildings as environmental gestures instead of static structures. The new SFMOMA will be the firm’s first building on the West Coast. Working with them as the Local Architect of Record is EHDD, a firm founded by Joseph Esherick in 1946 that also built the celebrated Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Though Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times raised some controversy over the design, it was locally greeted with positive reviews. The majority of the complaints focused only on the loss of the current building’s atrium and main staircase, which some consider to be iconic. Mr. Botta has also publicly expressed his disappointment over the planned removal of his staircase. Additionally, after the plans were unveiled, the neighboring W Hotel filed an objection to the proposal, claiming that it would affect the location of their loading and unloading operations and thus add more traffic to other parts of the already congested area.

Ultimately, however, the SFMOMA expansion was warmly welcomed by the community. Public comment at the final certification hearing was supportive, and the Planning Commission unanimously approved the proposals. Thousands visited during the museum’s final days, and most complained only about its long upcoming closure. A humorous anecdote perfectly illustrates this fact: Snøhetta is simultaneously working on a new sports arena in San Francisco for the Golden Gate Warriors basketball team, but the project has received much neighborhood opposition because it is considered to be too expensive and is expected to ruin the view of the Bay. Therefore, at the museum’s groundbreaking ceremony, Supervisor Jane Kim commented, “I was just asking Craig [Dykers] if he was looking forward to his next non-controversial project in the city.” blog.sfgate.coProgress of the construction can be viewed in time-lapse photography that has been updated every 15 minutes since 21 June 2013. The viewer can either select an image from a specific date and time or watch them unfold as a movie at our_expansion/building/constructioncam

Also in May 2013, the museum launched its fund-raising challenge, Where Art Can Take You: The Campaign to Transform SFMOMA. It increased the goal from previous campaigns to raise $610 million, of which 89% has been collected so far. The goal includes a $5 million challenge grant from an anonymous donor that would be matched to create a $10 million endowed fund to provide free admission to visitors 18 years old and under, whereas the current cutoff for free admission is at 12 years. The campaign also includes plans to improve other parts of the museum’s operations, as well. Since the celebration of its 75th anniversary, SFMOMA has sought to increase its permanent collections, as illustrated by the acquisition of the Fisher Collection loan. It has also received a number of recent donations that include works in all media by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Joseph Beuys, Cindy Sherman and Ellsworth Kelley. Other collectors have donated photographs by Diane Arbus and various 20th century Japanese artists, two areas in which SFMOMA has specifically concentrated.

SFMOMA will also expand its educational programs to further engage with schoolchildren of all levels in a contemporary manner; these include the creation of a new Curator of Education position and, in collaboration with the San Francisco Unified School District, a Teacher Institute. Other plans include upgrades to the Koret Visitor Education Center and Phyllis Wattis Theater and an expansion of both its arts commissioning and film programs. Finally, in addition to the work opportunities that the construction is now creating, the completed expansion is expected to open up new permanent employment opportunities as well as increased numbers of visitors that will bring further economic benefits to the surrounding area.

During its 2 year closure, the museum will be “on the go” through off-site programming that will include collaborative exhibitions and site-specific projects at partner venues, outdoor festivals and arts commissions, and educational and public programs. SFMOMA conducted a public poll to help plan these activities. Current exhibitions include works by the four winners of the 2012 SECA Art Award (Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art) at various locations. The pieces in “Beyond Belief” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum explore the connections between art and spirituality . Eight of Mark di Suvero’s large steel sculptures are on outdoor display at Crissy Field through May 2014. It is the largest collection of his work ever exhibited on the West Coast and coincides with his 80th birthday There has been some controversy over the way that the sculptures affect the location’s expansive view of the Golden Gate. And, on 28 September, a selection of “Photography in Mexico” will open at the Sonoma County Museum and will then travel to other venues. Additionally, the MuseumStore will remain open in a nearby temporary space designed by Shopworks from Napa.

In a haunting replay of the Fisher Collection debacle, there is a new museum controversy currently being debated again in the Presidio. Film director George Lucas has proposed building a new museum there to house his art collection. The plan received support from San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and is now one of three finalists under consideration by the Presidio Trust for renovation of the park’s former commissary building. The other two proposals are for a cultural and educational center to study the future of sustainability and a multi-purpose center called Presidio Exchange that has been likened to the High Line in New York. Yet again, local activists continue to be wary of creating too much traffic and destructive change in the practically unchanged, historical area. The three proposals are currently open for public comment, and a final public hearing is scheduled for 24 October 2013.



Jewish Museum