This used to be my standard rant about all Bay Area museums. No there there. Just special exhibitions of big-name artists/art from better museums.
I’ve come to realize that it’s not fair to paint all the museums with this brush. SFMoMA has done a fantastic job at developing a permanent collection which manages to present locally-important works as internationally important. The Oakland Museum lives up to its mission of being the Museum of California by emphasizing California identity, culture, and history. And the San Jose Museum of Art still quietly does its thing where it truly has its finger on the pulse of Silicon Valley. Oh, and the Stanford Museum is pretty good too.
Which is what makes the lack of identity from the two big San Francisco museums start to stand out now. Everyone else is getting their acts together, why can’t the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco?* So frustrating.
*Hipster note. I still go to thinker.org when I need to go to their website. I have no idea when they dropped that piece of identity.
FAMSF actually has two identity problems. The first is the absence of any identity in the permanent collection. Very few people are familiar with, let alone promoters of, the permanent collections. This is what leads them into being essentially an art-rental service. No one goes to see the permanent collection. It’s not a good thing if the view from the building is the biggest draw.
Which is too bad since I had one of those rare, “Holy fuck. What is this? I’ve never seen anything like this. Why is this here?” moments at the De Young when I first saw the Teotihuacan murals. In fact, that room is one which I direct people toward. It’s the only one I direct people toward. Part of the reason is the fantastic whitey guilt signage in the room* but the piece is also extremely impressive. Everything else in the museum? Each time I walk through and read signs, nothing sticks with me.
*Essentially, “This was left to us in a will! We didn’t know about it! It was a surprise! Honest! We’re in contact with Mexico! We want to do the right thing!”
The other identity problem is how their exhibitions are all over the map and seemed designed primarily to move merchandise.* You have to either bring your own context to these or accept them on the surface “this is important” or “this is obvious” level.
*Note. I have purchased quite a few catalogs from them over the years so I haven’t exactly been discouraging this strategy.
All too many of the exhibitions though like someone else’s culture is going on tour and we’re invited to take a quick peek at the highlights. I hate this approach to museums when I go traveling and roll my eyes at the tourists who jump off the bus, look at the greatest hits, and jump back on the bus all in the time it takes me to go through one gallery. It’s not a surprise that, despite reacting to all those exhibitions with an immediate, “I should probably see that,” I more often than not fail to make it there.
“See this because it’s famous” does not appeal to me. Tell me why it’s famous please?
If I want to be charitable—and put my Fred Wilson hat on—I can say that the De Young in particular appears to specialize in totems. This is the only thing I can find in common between the fashion exhibitions, European art rentals, Gees Bend, and the permanent collection. The museum presents objects because they have cultural significance and invites us to look at them because of that significance. It just doesn’t always explain the culture or use behind the object. And that’s not enough anymore.