Ken Garcia: One year later, new de Young Museum exceeds expectations 

As the backdrop for so many pitched political battles, Golden Gate Park hasn’t always been a field of dreams. But if the new de Young Museum reminds us of anything, it’s that if you build it, they will come.

What a difference a year makes. The one-year anniversary festivities taking place at the de Young this weekend are just the official trappings for what has been a remarkable debut of the glimmering new museum. Not only has it silenced most of the critics and persistent park gadflies, it has put the museum back in the national and international spotlight, a place to which all art palaces aspire.

And it’s brought visitors back to a place that had grown somewhat fallow — a magnet instead of a lightning rod. With 1.6 million visitors to the de Young in the last 12 months, the museum has smashed all attendance records and shown what a cultural mecca the park will become when the California Academy of Sciences finishes its new building two years from now.

"I’m not sure anyone realized how riveting the building would be or that it would bring such a sense of excitement and mystery," said John Buchanan, thedirector of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. "The museum has been a big success and a great showcase for the incredible art collections that were dormant for so long."

Buchanan said the attendance figures exceeded the expectations of the trustees and the staff — the largest museum attendance in San Francisco was all the way back in 1979 when the de Young had the King Tut exhibition. The biggest surprise beyond the numbers, he said, is the new museum’s ability to absorb the crowds.

"In July we had 10,700 people in the building for the Chicano art exhibit and there was not a moment when it was uncomfortably crowded," Buchanan said. "And what’s great is that we’re getting such a diverse and unique population. It’s been very well received and my guess is that the museum is seemingly so organic.’’

And for now, so seemingly empty of controversy. As someone who has covered the museum’s plight over the last decade, I think that the most remarkable thing about the new de Young is that it got built at all. There were so many political roadblocks, detours, legal eruptions and elective flights of fancy surrounding the plan to rebuild the earthquake-damaged structure that a lot of people involved wondered if the de Young was going to be the towering symbol of San Francisco’s paralyzing politics.

At one point the struggle got so ridiculous it appeared that The City was going to build a $50 million parking garage — but not the museum it was intended to serve. It’s worth remembering that at one point, the museum’s trustees and former director, Harry Parker III, were working overtime to move the de Young out of the park just to avoid the constant entanglements with the special interest groups that hold such sway over park policy.

But the board members, faced with polls that showed an overwhelming majority of city residents wanted the de Young to remain in its longtime home, ultimately reversed course and hired world-renown Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron to carry out their vision for the museum’s future.

Much of the credit for that goes to Dede Wilsey, who led the campaign to privately raise $180 million for the new museum. Wilsey told me this week that there were many times she had doubts the de Young would ever reopen its doors.

"It’s kind of miraculous to me," she said. "There were so many days of construction and work delays and design changes and trauma that when I see it, it’s still almost like a mirage."

The new museum has not only made the de Young a major architectural draw, it has renewed interest among other major art curators to share or show their collections. Buchanan said the museum will soon house a major exhibit from the Victoria and Albert Museum and that a number of other art institutions have been anxious to kindle a relationship.

Wilsey said that when the New York Metropolitan Museum announced that it would be closing its doors for renovations, it offered to lend the de Young some of its finest works for more than a year.

"I never wanted to just be known for the building, I wanted to be known for the museum,’’ she said. "There are days when I feel like Dorothy in Kansas.’’

It doesn’t take a wizard to see the results when culture trumps politics. And for the de Young these days, there’s no place like home.

Ken Garcia’s column appears weekends in The Examiner/Independent. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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