The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Reopens

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art reopened last week after a couple of years expanding the building, to what is now the largest modern art museum in North America. SFMOMA has been decades behind the big money and cultural insecurity that built top-rank arts institutions in Los Angeles, and further behind the establishment and collecting of the major east coast museums. Though its photography collection is grade A, it seemed impossible to stock up with a world-class all-media collection until recently, especially in the face of the current bubble in art prices and one-percenters socking so much of it away for speculation.  Happily, after a complicated dance with the Fisher family to acquire their collection on a 100-yr loan (whatever that really means in practice) and a $600m fundraising binge, it has come out not only with an excellent physical plant, but also a collection that at least covers the last 30 years with international scope and depth.

The question now is, what will they make of all that in terms of human engagement with art?  Getting a lot more on the walls, and more people in the door, is good, but what happens when people are actually standing in front of the objects? My strong view is that there’s a lot more to proper stewardship of the plastic arts patrimony than display by the usual museum conventions, and here the prospects are promising but mixed.  On the up side, the building has all sorts of spaces for events and innovative kinds of presentation. It even has an wonderfully titled Assistant Curator for Public Dialogue, whom I know to be all about exactly that, pushing back boundaries of habit, enlivening art engagement, and making actual artists integral to the enterprise. They were nice enough to put on a preview event for higher education faculty and seem to be genuinely anxious to make the museum a resource, in more ways than one, for us chalk-dusted wretches and our students. And it’s easily accessible by public transportation, right downtown in the middle of a very large daytime population.

What’s not so great, so far: while it’s free for anyone under 19, standard admission is $25.  This is very bad, and a big deal: if you spend that much to get in, you are under pressure to try to see too much and stay too long, never mind that the real economic cost of your visit, once all the fixed costs are covered (until it’s congested, and SFMOMA won’t be) is zero.  Of course, I can buy a membership, but they have this wrong, too: if they really meant what it says on that page (“Your museum/Your community/Your connection”), members would elect a couple of trustees, and share in governance, like the members of almost any other organization.  As the collection is now more than 30,000 objects, there’s almost certainly opportunity to use some of it to get the entry price closer to what it should be, namely free.

There is only one open evening a week, otherwise it’s 10-5, which is as silly as a theater programming nothing but matinees. Museums have a disagreeable tradition of being for tourists and the unemployed wives of wealthy businessmen.  A museum is the ideal place for a first date, and even to meet new people (no pressure, and lots of stuff to talk about); why make it so difficult to go there after work?  Object labels are still too small to read from where you can see the art, most don’t say enough about the work to be useful anyway, and in at least one case, I found a related work referenced, but without a small image of it right there.  If I wanted to signal visitors that they aren’t really qualified to be in my museum, I would do this a lot: “Ha–you can’t bring up the Demoiselles d’Avignon from memory? Come back when you know something.”

But why should a label be writing on the wall anyway? On the plus side, SFMOMA promises something really interesting here; it’s not up yet but when I get a chance to try it I will report back: an app for your phone that knows where you are/what you are looking at, and offers a variety of styles and levels of audio commentary.  If they got it right, it will also pop up images of relevant works in the museum and around the world.

Two things I’ll be looking for all over the museum are explanations of (i) how things are actually made, including demonstrations (live or video) and (ii) how the art market really works, and how it affects what is made and shown.  Finally, I hope they heed the lesson of this wonderful hack. Visitors will engage better with art if they feel they have the right to call b……t and might be right (or might change their minds). There is such a thing as connoisseurship and expertise, and it’s not chopped liver.  But it’s exercised by human beings who are subject to fads, groupthink, and fallacies just like the rest of us; the whole art world agreed that Van Meegeren’s forgeries were Vermeers. A significant amount of contemporary art seems just silly or frivolous; some in that category reveals itself to be considerable after consideration, but a lot of it really is nonsense. Nothing wrong with that, but only if the curators let us do our own thinking (and maybe share their internal diversity of views!)

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.