african masksDe Young and old
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de Young and the old

de Young
Golden Gate Park
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
San Francisco, CA 94118 
hotline: 415.863.3330

African art curator Kathleen Berrin
kberrin @famsf.org

SAN FRANCISCO

The St. Louis Art Museum and the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco are sister institutions of sorts. Both were originally created as World's Fair art pavilions, and both were built in their respective city's largest park. 
Indeed, both fairs were civic responses to Chicago's phenomenally successful World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. Both remain city-owned institutions, although both have long grown dependent on private support in the face of ever-decreasing city funds.

It took St. Louis, a city that takes its time, 11 years to get its act together, but San Francisco, in boomtown mode 45 years after the gold rush, acted faster in emulating Chicago's triumph. Led by self-aggrandizing civic booster Michael de Young, publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, it threw together a World's Fair in six months' time. By 1894, a fair featuring many of 
the same exhibits that had been in Chicago opened in the newly landscaped sand dunes of Golden Gate Park in the midst of an economic depression. Grandiosely 
titled the California Midwinter International Exposition, it hoped to permanently lure settlers and investors to California's salubrious climate by featuring locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables in the middle of winter.

Although the fair organizers promised that all buildings would be removed when the fair closed, they constructed one of permanent materials, so that when the fair ended, they had an indisputable fact on the land: a kitsch Egyptian-revival structure designed specifically for the display of art and artifacts - stuffed birds were a major exhibit - an amenity the city lacked.

So, despite park advocates, it stayed, eventually growing into a complex of a half-dozen cobbled-together structures. (The original building was demolished in 1929.) And eventually it was named after the man, Michael de Young, who persuaded the city to build it in the park that was originally intended to be a 
bucolic refuge.

To make a very long story short, the 1989 earthquake sent the de Young a jolting message: It was dangerously unsound structurally and it had to be 
seismically upgraded or rebuilt. Upgrading proved to be cost prohibitive, so after much ado - including two city bonds, each of which failed by a whisker - the architecturally undistinguished building was demolished. (There is no major city in the United States where it is more difficult to get anything accomplished than San Francisco, where every interest group of more than three has to be mollified that its concerns are being addressed.) The Pritzker Prize-winning Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, also responsible for the Tate Modern in London and the recent addition to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, was chosen to design the new de Young, which opened last Oct. 15 
to throngs. Construction cost was $135 million, all of it privately raised.

The situation is similar but, of course, different in St. Louis. The current museum is also the only building to survive the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, but it was intentionally built to become the city's public art 
museum. It hasn't experienced the crises the de Young has, although in 1992 it lost a city bond to expand its footprint in the park and enlarge its parking lot.

It has built two additions over the years, but it is now about to embark on a more ambitious expansion, one that is as certain to mark the city's cultural life as greatly as construction of the original Cass Gilbert building did. 
Perhaps it can learn from San Francisco, which went through an anguished decade-long debate to come to the conclusion that honesty of construction, truth to materials, respect of site and open acknowledgment of the ideas of one's own time is the legitimate way to go. The choice of British neo-modernist David Chipperfield to design the new building suggests that the museum has already absorbed those lessons.

More space,less footprint

For those who remember San Francisco's old de Young Museum, ugly on the outside, dingy and incoherently laid-out on the interior - a depressing place 
to visit despite the fine collection it housed - the new de Young is indeed a very exciting brave new world of possibility. Its copper-clad shed-like structure occupies the same site the old museum did, but with a slightly alien if nonetheless welcoming presence. With a total of 293,000 square feet, it has doubled the amount of exhibition space (84,200 square feet) while cutting the 
building's footprint in Golden Gate Park by a third - crucial in San Francisco, 
where park advocates and a militant bicycle coalition can tip elections and defeat bond measures. (The land returned to open space has been transformed into a sculpture garden.)

Inside, the collections have for the most part never looked so good. In addition, the new building abounds in generously scaled public spaces and amenities the public has come to expect of museums today - an auditorium, a cafe, a two-level shop, meeting rooms, classrooms, a central court that functions as both meeting place and crossroads, and a capacious and flexible set of special-exhibition galleries. The most spectacular element is a 144-foot tower that twists its way up above the tree canopy to align itself with the 
city's street grid. Housing the education department, it accommodates an observation deck that offers awe-inspiring 360-degree views of the park and 
city from the Pacific Ocean and the Golden Gate to downtown.

A work-in-progress

In several ways, the new de Young remains a work-in-progress.

Herzog & de Meuron is noted for the care with which it chooses and develops the skin of its buildings, each of which results in a different, appropriate solution. The de Young's facade, composed of textured, dimpled and perforated sheets of copper, no two of which are identical, is the building's most distinctive element. Based on photographs of light filtering through the park's trees, the pattern creates a lively, visually mottled effect on what would otherwise be a blank, warehouse-like facade. Copper changes over time as 
oxidation turns it from reddish-brown to green. The panels have begun to change color, turning a variety of browns. Green streaks are already visible, giving a 
hint of what the building will look like when it turns totally, if never uniformly, green. The idea is that the entire massive building will recede visually into the park's dense forest. And that might be a good thing.

The idea of interpenetration of nature and culture is increasingly common in museum design. In Boston, Norman Foster plans to bring the Fenway, the 
Olmsted-designed park the Museum of Fine Arts faces, into and through the building with a series of glass-enclosed courtyards. In Houston, Renzo Piano 
placed densely planted internal gardens between galleries. At the de Young, Herzog & de Meuron have taken a leaf from Piano in creating two courts, one 
planted with ferns, the other with eucalyptus, between two of the three long "fingers" that make up the ground plan. (These courts, which the public cannot 
enter, strike me as disappointingly token, however - something more substantial was called for.)

Although the architects created traditionally scaled galleries for the museum's renowned collection of American painting, sculpture and decorative arts - 
arguably the best in the country after the East Coast heavyweights in Boston, New York and Philadelphia - much of the rest of the museum employs a flowing 
open plan. This works in galleries devoted to Oceanic and African art, the other two anchors of the collection. (San Francisco's European and substantial paper collections are in another building, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, a legacy of another World's Fair, the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.)

But it leaves some art looking unmoored. The textile galleries, where Turkish carpets, haute-couture gowns, medieval tapestries and tribal textiles are all 
shown in one open space, suffer the most, but works on paper and decorative arts installed in long corridors also seem lost in space. Moveable walls could easily correct the situation.

The outdoor sculpture garden also needs time to reach its potential. Although it includes a brilliant commissioned work - a circular space with an oculus 
open to the sky where you can sit and watch the light change - by the great light-and-space sculptor James Turrell, the garden as a whole currently lacks a 
sense of permanence and inevitability.

The de Young's Achilles' heel is its postwar collection. Until Harry Parker, the man who fought heroically for this new building, became director in 1988, the museum didn't actively collect modern art, leaving that responsibility to the private San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, now its rival. In less than 20 years, you can't build a first-rate collection of modern American art, and the sad results now on view in the de Young demonstrate that. However, they also demonstrate that the museum is interested in collecting in that area and that significant gifts are welcome. Collectors from all over the country love to give art to San Francisco museums. (St. Louis should be so lucky.) Maybe the 
dismal installation of contemporary art at the spectacular new de Young is 
intentional.

read also de Young &

papoua new guinea |  De YoungPapua New Guinea claims the San Francisco museum doesn't have a right to items in an exquisite collection. It adds a twist in the debate over cultural treasures.

The De Young reopened in October with Marcia and John Friede’s collection of Papoua New Guinea art put on display upstairs.

 

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