Travel Spotlight

San Francisco: In the Art World’s Spotlight

The art world is shining a spotlight on San Francisco—specifically, on the newly reopened, vastly expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The new SFMOMA is only the most recent expression of the city’s long history of support for local arts. Home to the oldest art institute west of the Mississippi River, this breezy Californian city boasts a slew of world-class museums, cutting edge galleries and artists’ studios, plus a trove of creative treasures often found in unexpected locations. As an SF-based artist recently told me, it’s simply impossible to keep up with all of San Francisco’s artistic offerings.

But we can focus on a few of them, starting with SFMOMA. The 10-story expansion by the Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta has tripled the museum’s exhibition space, surpassing the size of New York City’s MOMA. With $610 million raised, a pioneering partnership with the Fisher Collection and commitments from 230 other donors, the SFMOMA has positioned itself to be one of the most important modern art centers in the world.

Snøhetta’s design is remarkable, accessible and—reflecting its Scandinavian influence—open. The pearly façade’s gently undulating lines, meant to evoke the fog and waters of the San Francisco Bay, change with the sunlight. Light informs the interiors as well, as the spaces are warm and unobtrusive, ideal for viewing the artworks.

Snøhetta’s critical attention to the visitor experience cannot be understated. Hallways welcome natural sunlight, balconies and terraces provide outdoor access, and subtle clues (like a different ceiling designs on every floor) orient visitors within the large space. Although they appear permanent, the walls on each floor have been configured to optimally showcase the works on display.

And what works they are. The 19 opening exhibitions draw from the SFMOMA’s permanent collection of over 33,000 pieces of painting, sculpture, photography, media arts, design and architecture. The museum has also penned a 100-year partnership with the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, one of the world’s largest private art collections. The Gap founders began collecting more than four decades ago, amassing seminal works from such artists as Alexander Calder, Ellsworth Kelly, Gerhard Richter, Richard Serra and Andy Warhol.

READ MORE: San Francisco Destination Guide

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="620"] Courtesy SF Moma[/caption]

Updating the collection with important 21st century artwork, an additional 3,000 works promised to the museum include pieces by Doris Salcedo and Ai Weiwei. The new Pritzker Center for Photography, occupying nearly the entire third floor, is now the country’s largest gallery and research center dedicated to photography.

Highlights of the museum include the museum’s living wall, the largest in the US, compromising nearly 20,000 plants, breathtaking works by Gerhard Richter, an octagonal room bearing seven serene pieces by Agnes Martin and Café 5, home to an organic installation by designer Claudy Jongstra, which is made of wool from her own heritage sheep farm in the Netherlands.

Beyond the SFMOMA In 2010, Mary and Andrew Pilara founded Pier 24 Photography as a place to observe photographs in quiet contemplation. Entrance to the converted warehouse under the Bay Bridge is free, but only by appointment. No sign appears on the opaque, heavy glass door; the visitor rings a buzzer and may enter the subtly lit space only after providing a name. On view through January 2017 is a must-see exhibit appropriately called ‘Collected’ that features selections from ten local collectors. Some favorite works include stunningly crisp portraits of important musicians of the last century in Nion McEvoy’s collection, Dorothea Lange’s iconic 1936 Migrant Mother photograph (on loan from Sabrina Tompkins Buell) and stunning images of the San Francisco waterfront from the Pilara’s own collection (

The Minnesota Street Project in SF’s edgy Dogpatch neighborhood is also the work of local art aficionados Deborah and Andy Rappaport. A combination of galleries, studios and artists’ spaces, the project is intended as a self-sustaining model that dedicates all profits to supporting the arts. Notable galleries within the airy industrial space include Casemore Kirby, currently featuring young Japanese artists, and Themes + Projects, where French photographer Carine Magescas’s bleached seascapes entrance the viewer (

READ MORE: San Francisco Top Table

Courtesy SF Moma, Iwan Baan

In the Mission, the humble house at 500 Capp Street belonged to David Ireland, a sculptor and conceptual artist whose work is in the permanent collections of the New York MOMA, SFMOMA, Whitney Museum, and Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). After purchasing it in 1975, Ireland transformed the house into an art project, sanding down surfaces and then sealing its ceilings, walls and floors with a high-gloss varnish. Recently restored, 500 Capp Street now serves as a museum, gallery and study center. Reservations to visit are a must, and book up well in advance (

On neighboring Telegraph Hill, San Francisco Art Institute students of Diego Rivera—some of whom went on to have successful art careers of their own—decorated the interior of Coit Tower with scenes of every day life in Depression-era California. Images of farmers and fishermen, lawyers and newspapermen, laborers and pedestrians, all provide a glimpse of San Francisco history (1 Telegraph Hill Blvd).

In fact, you needn’t head indoors to admire much of San Francisco’s homegrown art. Throughout the Mission District, colorful murals festoon buildings, garages and alleyways. The best places to take them in are Clarion Alley and Balmy Street, where nearly all the vertical spaces are covered with vibrant, symbol-laden depictions of the history, struggles and dreams of SF’s Latino community.

READ MORE: San Francisco and contact the Bookings Team for help planning your trip.

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