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Museum qualities

Cultural institutions have evolved from
hushed, homely buildings to inspiring structures geared toward gathering. Leading the charge
is San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art.
Alex Bozikovic reports on the SFMOMA's transition into the latest It gallery space

Snøhetta’s hypnotic wavy wing has three street-level entrances.

Snøhetta’s hypnotic wavy wing has three street-level entrances.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF HENRIK KAM, IWAN BAAN/SFMOMA

To enter the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, you used to walk through a skylit atrium and ascend a heavy granite stair into the realm of art. Now that stair has been replaced with gently sloping steps of maple, and the first things you see at the top are a coffee bar and a charging station for wireless devices.

SFMOMA reopened on May 14 after a three-year expansion, and it's doubled in size to become the largest modern art museum in North America. It now has 170,000 square feet of galleries on seven levels, with a collection strong in photography, American painting and post-war German art.

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But equally striking is its change in atmosphere. From its set of free streetfront galleries to new apps and interactive stations, it's informal, welcoming and, in every sense, engaged with the city around it. "This is a museum for the age of sharing," says Charles Schwab, the chair of its board of trustees.

The $305-million (U.S.) expansion, sensitively designed by American-Norwegian architects Snøhetta, reflects a larger shift in the museum world. Rather than temples to culture, art museums are recasting themselves as living rooms for the city: places to see and think about art, but also to meet up before a movie, drop in for a cortado, or spend 10 minutes feeding your Instagram.

The SFMOMA’s new look with Snøhetta’s handsome addition rising up behind the original building.

The SFMOMA’s new look with Snøhetta’s handsome addition rising up behind the original building.

Art museums have long been nearly windowless – designed to protect their collections above all, and to symbolically separate art from the outside world. But this is changing. On June 17, the Tate Modern in London will open its new wing – which as its architects Herzog and de Meuron say in a statement, offers "a diverse collection of public spaces dedicated to relaxation and reflection, making and doing, group learning and private study." In Quebec City, the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec opens its Pierre Lassonde Pavilion on June 24, a new wing that reaches out to the Grande Allée to provide a new plaza and new glassed-in lobby: an open invitation to the city.

This is also precisely the intent of SFMOMA's new addition. "It's meant to be a hearth," architect Craig Dykers, a principal of Snøhetta and the building's design leader, says of the museum. "It's a place for all sorts of non-commercial experiences in the middle of the city."

Neal Benezra, the museum's director, argues that in the 21st century, museums have become "more fully public" institutions. "There's been a gradual shift in what a museum does and what it means," he says. Where such institutions once focused on conservation and collection, "now there's much more attention paid to the visitor."

You can see this with a glance at SFMOMA's expanded building.

The Roberts Family Gallery features Richard Serra’s Sequence, which visitors can access without paying admission.

The Roberts Family Gallery features Richard Serra’s Sequence, which visitors can access without paying admission.

The museum's original 1995 wing, by the Swiss architect Mario Botta, is all Postmodern grandiosity: a stolid box wrapped in ornamental brickwork, and pierced by a tall cylinder that evokes a zebra-striped Greek column. The new wing by Snøhetta rises up behind it, a 10-storey slab wrapped in a white wavy skin of polymer panels. It's handsome but retiring, as nuanced and changeable as a social network.

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The Snøhetta wing has not one but three entrances on three different streets. It faces the busiest, Howard Street, with a glass wall enclosing a massive Richard Serra sculpture, Sequence. You can walk around the weathering-steel Serra, linger on a set of bleachers, or explore an adjacent gallery – all without a ticket.

These free galleries are intended to send a clear message of accessibility, and also, Benezra says, to serve "the pop-up mentality" of the millennial generation. "People don't plan the way they did in the past; they change the course of their day quickly," he says. "And people can pop into the museum without planning a visit."

That is especially relevant considering the gallery's location. It's in the city's South of Market neighbourhood, which a generation ago was mostly aging warehouses. Since then, a crop of condo buildings, hotels, restaurants and retail have sprouted, along with office towers that house LinkedIn and, soon, Salesforce. It is remarkably busy, the streets lined with 30-year-olds plotting their startups. The massive new Transbay Transit Center, intended to be a transfer point for buses and commuter rail, is rising a block away.

Tech is shaping the museum's visitor experience, too. With a new app, audio guides will walk you through tours of the building, provide responses to the art from celebrities, and tours of specific collections (which include extensive holdings of Ellsworth Kelly and Alexander Calder). Digital screens in some galleries broadcast history and anecdotes about the art within. (For instance, how the 235-ton Serra remained in place while the building went up.)

Visitors take in the exhibition Approaching American Abstraction: The Fisher Collection.

Visitors take in the exhibition Approaching American Abstraction: The Fisher Collection.

Upstairs, Snøhetta have integrated new galleries with the existing building, and designed carefully detailed white boxes with coved ceilings. But moving between them, there is drama; you rise from level to level on a set of stairs that kiss the outer facade of the building. From here you can peek down deeply through the building or, at each landing, through grand windows to the jumble of the city outside.

Outdoor sculpture gardens on the fifth and seventh levels are what Dykers calls "palette-cleansers," to help revive you as you move through the collection of 1,900 objects on view. And, as at the Pompidou in Paris or the new Whitney Museum in New York, looking at the city becomes part of your experience of the museum.

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This is not to take away from the experience of art; it's an acknowledgement that human beings cannot walk a massive museum without wanting to see the sky, gossip or have a croissant. "What is a museum?" Dykers asks rhetorically. "Is this a place for art with people, or a place for people, with art? Of course, it's both."

The original granite stairs have been replaced with an open-concept sloping staircase that encourages lounging. Alexander Calder’s mobile Untitled (1963) is the centrepiece.

The original granite stairs have been replaced with an open-concept sloping staircase that encourages lounging. Alexander Calder’s mobile Untitled (1963) is the centrepiece.

Iwan Baan

As I explored SFMOMA, I had a few minutes alone with one of the smaller exhibitions within the collection, paintings rich in colour by Paul Klee. Looking at a remarkable small canvas, I reflected on what Dykers had told me earlier: "When you go to a museum,

90 per cent of people are taking pictures or doing something other than looking at the work," he said. "We need to find ways to slow people down and feel they're in a situation that belongs to them."

In a well-proportioned room, with a comfortable bench and the space to contemplate great art, I found that is what happens. This is the magic of a good contemporary museum: It's a place where you can do many things with your phone, but where profound things happen when you finally put it down.

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