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SF MoMA, Snohetta and the Fisher Deal

I was just in San Francisco, and finally able to make my first visit to the new, expanded version of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It didn’t change my view of the outside of the new Snohetta-designed addition, but I came away very impressed with the galleries created inside. And my first full view of the Fisher Collection the wing houses confirms, with only a little moderation, what I have written here before about the deal the Fishers cut with the museum.

First, that exterior. I still don’t like it. In person, it looks a little less than I had imagined like “a building equivalent of The English Patient,” which I called it last May.  The folds are more graceful in person than they are in photographs.

But it hardly matters, because you don’t really see that part of the museum’s facade unless you go to the trouble of walking a couple of blocks and glimpsing through other buildings.

Besides, for art museum, it’s what’s inside that counts–and the galleries in the Snohetta building seem to be excellent for showing off art. So, as with my thoughts about the downtown Whitney museum–not crazy about the exterior, but the interior work well–I will henceforth minimize my criticism about the addition’s architecture. With one last exception, namely that I wish the addition fit better with the “old” SF MoMA. From the outside, the two don’t go well together at all. Inside, the seams are better.

I came up the external stairs, entering the museum from Howard Street, and the first view is of the Serra works at right above and then of the grand Helen and Charles Schwab Hall, at left above.

Similarly, seeing the Fisher collection at SF MoMA explains precisely why the museum bowed to the Fisher family’s demands for provisions in the loan agreement that I hope will never be copied. It’s a collection the likes of which could not be assembled today, even with boatloads of money. It would have taken SF MoMA or any museum decades to come close to assembling even a smaller collection of such quality.

Yes, in the 260 works in view (of 1,100 in the collection), there are too many Chuck Closes for my taste, for example. I cannot say that every work there will be viewed with awe 100 years from now. It’s still wrong for the Fishers to claim such a large portion of the building for their collection at all times. They should have been more flexible in the way their collection was to be displayed. All that is still true.

But any modern museum would have cut a deal to get this collection–as you’ll see for yourself in the photos I’ve  posted below. I wish SF MoMA had negotiated a better deal, and I wish it would disclose the complete agreement so the public can see for itself what was given away. But we’ll never know if laxer terms would have worked and still won the collection.

Here are just a few views:


  1. Eric Berman says

    I had a similar reaction to the museum’s exterior: all well and good, but you can’t get a good view of it from anywhere an out-of-towner is likely to find an outlook.
    The interior, well, the building is nice and all, but the art is without redeeming qualities–just awful; it is a harbinger of the shudder, or morel likely, the shrug which which our descendants of 100 years hence will greet what the late 20th century had to say. It’s not the Fishers’ fault, though: the late 20th century had little to say worth hearing or seeing.
    Maybe the Trump post-NEA era will spawn an Entartete Kunst that will redeem our age. One can only hope.

    • I disagree completely on the art–much of is wonderful, classic modern art. Heaven help the country and the world if a new NEA attempts to endorse an “approved” strain of art. BTW, I have a long-standing policy against political posts–I will not approve any comments that try to take advantage of the moment from either point of view.

  2. Eric Berman says

    I have taught Humanities and Art History for many years, and I come to the subject of ‘why art is’ with as much perspective as anyone. Everything Man makes is political. To explain art, its “moment” is of the essence since the artist does not work in a vacuum; and we as audience cannot absent ourselves from the milieu of our viewership. Pot-shots, tirades, ad hominem or feminam taunts–i agree these are counterproductive to any discussion. But the determination of a political regime to coerce the media to convey its ideology, to boost or strangle artistic expression for its purposes, that MUST be reported along with all the pretty colors. When voices fall silent, when Expressionism goes underground and only lock-step Socialist Realism is left, posterity must know why.
    I said that the art featured in the Fisher collection at the SFMOMA had little to say to me. I didn’t see it reaching, responding, communicating, only testing my patience and my credulity. Most seemed like a great puzzle, and not that well done at that.

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