Museum owes its roots to a grand canal 

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exists as it does today thanks to a germ sowed by the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition and watered by a group of guerilla artists.

The expo was a yearlong celebration of the new Panama Canal and the newly rebuilt San Francisco, nine years after the great earthquake brought The City to its knees. Museums from around the world lent great works of art to The City for the celebration, and other artists created special works for it.

When it was all done, a group of artists at the end of the celebration formed an association and started rallying to keep some of those great works in San Francisco. That association evolved a few years later into the San Francisco Museum of Art — a museum that would be without a home for the next 15 years.

From being a pet project of a few guerilla artists, as they were described by SFMOMA curator Sarah Roberts, it evolved into being a project that
garnered the attentions of some of the richest and most art-savvy San Franciscans, people whose names are now known as the namesakes of city parks and streets.

With the help of the rich and powerful, what was then called the San Francisco Museum of Art finally opened in the War Memorial Veterans Building on Van Ness Avenue.

This weekend, SFMOMA celebrates its 75th anniversary with a free open house.

At the time, the only other museum in The City displayed largely European and older American art; the idea behind this museum was to expose the public to contemporary art. It wasn’t long before the museum was making waves in the art world, displaying edgy works and supporting controversial artists.

About two years ago, Roberts and her colleagues were handed the project to tell a story about the museum’s history using the works in its permanent collection.

“The thesis is to tell the story that only SFMOMA can tell, intertwining our own institutional history with art history,” she said. “We wanted to show the points where we were ahead of the curve or moving the conversation forward.”

She said the museum wanted to show many of it’s most important pieces of art, but contextualize them in their place in art history and in the museum’s history.

“The heart and soul of the show was to tell the story of how all those pieces came to be here. They all got here because of someone’s passion — either an artist’s passion or a patron’s passion,” she said. “There are stories behind every single piece here, and we wanted to tell some of those stories and give people an idea of who we are, who we have been and who we might be in the future.”

Spatial sense: SoMa building becoming too cramped

What seemed like palatial new digs for San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art 15 years ago now feels too cramped to effectively show its first-rate art collection.

The museum’s board will meet this month in hopes of hammering out the final details of its expansion plans and of its partnership with the Fisher family.

In April, the museum said it hoped to triple its current gallery space by constructing an expansion on Howard Street that would bridge Natoma Street and connect with its existing building. That expansion would add 140,000 square feet.

Then in September, the museum announced a partnership with Doris and the late Donald Fisher, who had sought to find a space for their 1,100 works of modern art. It wasn’t immediately clear how much money the Fishers would contribute or whether it would mean an even larger expansion than was already planned.

Museum Director Neal Benezra remained mum about details of the expansion, but said preparing for the anniversary has reinforced the museum’s mission.

“Fifteen years after moving into this space, to our amazement, we’ve already outgrown this building,” he said.


Free events

When: Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.; Monday, 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.
Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St.


  • 75 gallery talks led by local creative community members
  • Bill Fontana and Allison Smith installations
  • Debut of multimedia tour
  • Saturday night performances, featuring electronic music duo Matmos
  • Sunday is family day with special activities and film screenings
  • Special food offerings from Caffe Museo and Blue Bottle Coffee, as well as snacks from some of The City’s finest food carts, which will be outside of the Minna Street entrance

Source: SFMOMA

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Katie Worth

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