The Steins Collect

It’s very interesting to see a museum try and reinvent itself. After the Anniversary Show, I got the definite sense that SFMoMA was trying to finally distinguish itself as a museum worth seeing for its permanent collection rather than being one of those museums which you only visit when a special exhibition looks interesting. The current exhibition of works collected by the Stein family is further evidence of this new path.

In particular, the Matisse’s Femme au chapeau, appears to be SFMoMA’s designated icon. It was prominently featured in the Anniversary show and it’s the centerpiece of this show as well. The Stein show is positioning the piece as the key component of the new modern art. While the entire exhibition is pretty good and includes a lot of interesting works which play off of each other (Picasso and Matisse being inspired by Cezanne, each other, etc.) the larger point is that the Steins supported much of what we consider to be modern art, that Femme au chapeau was a seminal piece in that modern art, and that Femme au chapeau just happens to be part of the permanent collection at SFMoMA.

I am, in general, in favor of this positioning. Bay Area art museums have tended to not promote their permanent collection well. I started to change my mind on SFMoMA after the anniversary show. And I think the museum is continuing on a good path in this department.

Regarding the Stein show, it’s pretty good. It’s kind of inconsistent, but that’s to be expected from any personal collection which includes as much as possible of everything that they ever purchased. What’s fun is the sense you have of this artwork being new and fresh rather than almost cliché. Being able to see the interplay between artists as they saw and reacted to the new work really emphasizes how fresh everything was at the time.

At the same time, it’s always weird to see an exhibition where the curation and selection of the artwork is being done by an amateur with a checkbook rather than an educated curator. It’s neat to see the personal taste and relationships with the artists develop. And it’s interesting to see minor works (sketches and postcards) which don’t normally make it into museums. But there’s always a disconnect when you see an event in a museum which has non-museum roots.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

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