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Friday Slide Show: The New SFMOMA Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

29 April 2016

On Thursday we joined a crowd of journalists invited to tour the new SFMOMA before its opening to the public on May 14. The extension added to the rear of the Botta-designed building on Third St. is certainly new but we also found a new attitude to go along with the new walls.

Our adventure began on the streetcar where we eavesdropped on two old friends discussing their art collection. The one was lamenting to the other that she had promised her husband to stop buying etchings until they have replenished their savings. She buys very old etchings, she said, but not by the masters. She buys works by the students of the masters. Her friend recommended Clar's as a good place to find etchings when she gets back to it.

We wondered about students today as the first woman went on about her love for etchings. There are the art schools, of course. But there aren't many opportunities to work with a master any more. You post to Instagram of Flickr, get a following and presto.


Galleries provide insights into the workings of masters but museums tell the whole story. We listened as one curator of photography escorted a single member of the press through the entire gallery, reciting biography after biography and the putting the work into context.

Not Quite Ready. The official opening is May 14.

"Explore," was the word we kept seeing and hearing as we wandered through the museum. And it will be even easier to explore now that anyone 18 and under will be admitted for free seven days a week.

That's the new attitude.

It's expressed even in some little details. Museums usually make a line in the floor to stand behind when viewing a work. Sometimes that line is reinforced by a rope. At SFMOMA there's actually a footing that extends over the floor. It's an effective way to protect the art while not discouraging your examination.

We're not sure, but we think this new attitude extends to photographing the collection too. We were warned only not to use flash. We can remember when photography was only permitted in the lobby and anyone with a dSLR was suspected of being a professional and banished.

So we've sprinkled our tour of the building, which is not quite finished, with a few of our old friends.


We walked from Montgomery Station down Second St. to Minna, where we used to work at a weekly magazine. We know the alley well.

That led us to the Minna entrance, one of two new entrances to the museum. The main entrance was closed and the entrance we used was on Howard St.

Minna St. Entrance. One of two new entrances.

Both the first and second floors will be open at no charge. There isn't a lot to see on the first floor (Richard Serra's large iron Sequence (2006) at the Howard entrance is one) but the second floor gallery (the same as before with Matisse and Klee and Rothko and friends) is spacious. And it's a nicer welcome than the dark lobby of the old place.

The main entrance's mysterious staircase, hidden behind a wall with balconies overlooking the lobby, is gone. A finger of wood from the new white walled and wood finished extension reaches into the lobby, suspended in the air. It's a lot more welcoming even as it twists around to lead you to the second floor.

SFMOMA made human guides available to groups of about two dozen at a time. But we opted for an approach you can use: a new SFMOMA app, which will be available on the Apple App store on May 14. We used a prototype that runs on an iPhone. If you don't have an iPhone you can rent one at SFMOMA for $3/$6 (members/non-members). An Android version is in phase two, we were told.

The SFMOMA App. Learning about the new staircase.

Detour, which builds location-aware apps, did the technical development for the app and it functioned very well for the two hours we used it.

There are a couple of interesting aspects to the app.

One is that you can use your camera. And when you enter your email address into the app, it will upload your images to a server where you can retrieve them later. It also tracks your visit, we were told when we turned our unit back in. Click to see the Timeline of our visit.

And, as you might suspect, there are illuminating discussions of nearby works, which appear at the bottom of the screen as you wander around. Just tap to hear the presentation.

Secrets. The old building (bricks) and the new (drywall).

But the reason we grabbed one was the longer tours the app presents. There are special presentations for each gallery as well as one for the building itself, which took about 40 minutes.

It revealed a number of secrets as we wandered around, things we certainly would not have noticed without a tip from the app.

One was in a little pair of windows (one lower for children) that show the "seismic gap" between the old Botta building (whose brick facade can be seen) and the Snøhetta-designed extension (faced with drywall).

It's quite dark but we managed to get a shot at f8, ISO 1600 and one second with our image stablized lens.

A few times, we wandered off the recommended course but the app kept track of us, telling us how many feet and in which direction we had to go to get back on course. And it waited for us until we got to the spot.

Among the more thoughtful touches is a Find-the-Nearest-Bathroom button. Which, at SFMOMA, are worth visiting even if you don't have to go. The one we walked into was done entirely in red.

The speakers in the various presentations are unusually entertaining, too. A few of them have day jobs, like the San Francisco Giants.


We didn't just listen to the app, though. The museum is a photographer's delight with challenging and attractive angles to keep you busy.

One issue you'll have to confront is by design. It's an unusually open design for a museum. Craig Dykers, Snøhetta founding partner, told us the concept was to bring the outside world into the museum.

One way it does that is with huge windows. So there's a lot of sunlight in the place. The windows run along the eastern outside wall, which is one side of a long hallway that leads into the more traditional galleries.

Your normal auto white balance will function very nicely for those hallway shots. But you'll have trouble in the galleries, which are quite dim and artificially lit.

We brought along a WhiBal to help us later apply the correct white balance to our images, all of which were shot as Raw files with no white balance information. In addition to setting the white balance, the card also helped us raise the illumination so our shots in the slide show are a little easier to see than the real thing.

We've seen a number of JPEGs and phone images taken at the same time we were there with the usual problems: odd white balance, blown highlights, muddy shadows.

We also let ISO wander up to 1600 when necessary. And it did that a lot as we settled on f8 for most of these shots.

So that's our advice: custom white balance, Raw, high ISO.


In addition to a very large gallery space (15,000 square feet) on the third floor for the Pritzker Center for Photography, there are some works on other levels. We found a good selection of works by Bernd and Hilla Becher on one floor, for example.

And next to the coffee bar is the Photography Interpretive Gallery with three hands-on exhibits for all ages.

Those include:

  • A video corner with biographies of and interviews with various photographers that also show them at work. Some of this material is also available on the museum's Web site.
  • A pair of interactive story displays, which confused everyone. There's a big screen, which tells you what to do, and a console with two knobs on it. Rotate the smaller knob to scroll through the available stories or questions. Rotate the bigger knob to explore the story. Because the images are high resolution, they can take a while to load, so be patient.
  • A pair of composition tables where you can arrange objects (from your pocket, for example) on a light table to create a silhouette image that is printed on thermal paper and stored on the Web. Ours was our Nikon D300, which we were glad to put down for a second.

There's a good deal more to SFMOMA's photography gallery. But we were just delighted to see some Dassonville, Minor White shooting local haunts and Imogene Cunningham. Rare treats.


As interesting as the new building is in itself, the breath of fresh air circulating SFMOMA is a welcome change. The new emphasis on access to the collections and sharing your experience is reflected in the building's open design but it doesn't stop there.

Its in the new app and integration of the Web into the museum and even in the friendly security guards and museum store employees.

We have an unusually long slide show for you but we hope it's just an introduction to the first of many visits to the new and improved SFMOMA.

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