March 09, 2010

More Musings on Museum Building Booms

While I was the chief curator at Yerba Buena, I got a call from a journalist who wanted me to comment on the meaning of the opening of the then brand-new remodel of the Palace of the Legion of Honor. He asked, “Does this make San Francisco a world class art center?” He meant that after a decade of new art buildings (and with more to come as we now know), did this reservoir of space for art move the city into the class of New York and LA, or even European capitals?

My answer was that he was confusing buildings with artists. Art scenes are complex amalgams of strengths and weaknesses, but in large part they are a factor of artists producing work worthy of attention. I felt that San Francisco had been doing that job just fine for as long as I’d been around (since the mid-70s), and that that activity seemed to move right along without any meaningful impact from the edifices going up all over town. My point being that buildings take on meaning when we see what human impact they have and what is put in them. The attention that local artists get is what goes up and down, but the production is steady. Not to say that that steady production doesn’t have stronger moments than others.

More than a decade later, things have improved along these lines. SF MOMA is much more friendly to the region than in the past, not only as evidenced by the increasingly rigorous SECA awards but by the highly inclusive recent 75th anniversary events, and the ongoing education department engagement, such as this blog. Even the De Young now has a contemporary series that has shown such local stalwarts as John Bankston and Michael Arcega. Berkeley and Oakland have both been historically strong regional presenters. (I did my best at Yerba Buena to establish a tradition of primary commitment to support of local artists; what direction the current leadership takes remains to be seen.)

The notion of world class is the McGuffin in all this. I know world class is  just a phrase, but it’s one that sets my teeth on edge. It’s the kind of language choice I associate with celebrity gossip on television. Can’t you just see the folks interviewing the movie stars on the red carpet Sunday night at the Oscars pushing a microphone into Tom Cruise’s face and chirping, “Isn’t this just a world class event?” Language is enriched when it incorporates slang, neologisms, immigrant inventions and street talk that say things that were never needed to be said before, or that we were never willing or able to say to each other. Language is corrupted when it is made bland, vague, superficial, flabby or meaningless. World class is a term that I believe leaked over from the sports world. In ranking how fast the fastest sprinters can cover 100 meters, it has objectivity and meaning. Slopped over to a realm such as the arts, it only pretends to some kind of verifiable truth. So while it feigns being about the best of the best, it really means, “talked about and caught up in the international hullaballoo that we all hear so much media talk about,” with a dash of “appreciated by we who are at top of the heap.” Both meanings reveal values that imply that our worth as people and arts professionals is determined by a competitive pecking order. Juxtapose this with the values of someone like local hero Ted Purves, who is an artist who worked for almost three years in his East Bay neighborhood through an organization he and his wife Susanne Cockrell started called Temescal Amity Works. Are their modest, yet deeply, profoundly moving community-based projects world class?

So, a long and long-winded way to say, we need and love gorgeous, progressive, thriving art presenters, the more the merrier. But let’s not equate these facilities with the health of our art scenes. These buildings are only one of a couple of dozen factors that make us all rich in our arts surroundings, which I’ve written about elsewhere.

I wanted to conclude by mentioning another miraculous art building’s upcoming arrival. I went on a tour of the new Crocker Museum in Sacramento on Thursday the 4th. It won’t be opening for several months but the building is essentially done, and it’s quite wonderful. It’s a one-hundred million dollar investment overseen by tireless director Lial Jones. In particular, there are several spectacular galleries on the third floor that will be the envy of most museum professionals. You can see the sawtooth clerestory-style skylights here:

and depicted in the digital mockup below, in the center. Under those are a set of three identical, generously-sized galleries with gorgeous light and uncomplicated lines. There’s also a very nice theater, and the usual array of meeting rooms, cafe, bookstore, et al. Like most institutions that take a big step up, the museum will have to build toward a collection worthy of its facility, but this opening is sure to electrify the Valley art scene for years to come.

Old and new Crocker buildings

Comments (5)

  • Dodie Bellamy says:

    Great post, Renny. It feels so much in resonance with my Mission School post, the institution not the end all, but a dot in a much larger community/creative constellation.

  • Anne Walsh says:

    Thanks for this, Renny.

  • Frank Lostaunau says:

    What would you pay for world class tuna?

    yum yum…

  • I think that the phrase “world class” has been overused and misused. I DO think that you can point out museums that have world class collections – The Louvre, The British Museum, The Met, etc. But then, there is a lot of sloppy reporting in every form of journalism and it debases meaning.

  • Tessa DeCarlo says:

    When we lived in Napa we heard “world class” continually applied to wines, restaurants, artists, social events, and of course the Napa Valley itself. We decided that “world class” meant “provincial,” because anyone who yearns for the label “world class” thereby admits it doesn’t apply. When was the last time someone called New York a “world class” city, or Paris a “world class” art venue? Renny is 100% right–the term expresses a pecking-order, all-buzz-no-content state of mind. But that is the state of mind the world around us often seems to be dragging us into, 24 hours a day.

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