The New San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Almost three years from the date of its closing, the greatly enlarged and revitalized SFMOMA is reopening to almost universal oohs and aahs, with of course, a few negatives among a small handful of naysayers. But don’t count this writer among the bemused and blasé detractors. The new $305 million SFMOMA is an extraordinary museum and an outstanding enhancement to San Francisco. And I’m not simply referring to the new building or to the additional art on display. It’s the combination of the two that will turn all visitors into modern art lovers.

So, what’s changed? The former 70,000 square foot, five story building, designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta and completed in 1995, fronted on Third Street, in San Francisco’s South of Market (SOMA) area, across from Yerba Buena Gardens and the Contemporary Jewish Museum. It was celebrated for its red brick façade and black and white striped oculus on top. But with the 100-year gift of an 1100-piece, world-class art collection by Gap founders, Doris and Donald Fisher, it became necessary to greatly expand the museum.

A new ten-story structure designed by the talented Norwegian architecture firm, Snøhetta, built behind the Botta building and extending a full city block from Minna Street to Howard Street, adds 100,000 additional square feet of indoor and outdoor space to the original museum. And the new construction is fabulous. The outside of the novel structure is made of 700 off-white molded, curved and creased fiberglass-reinforced polymer panels, inspired in part by the fog and the waters of the San Francisco Bay. It doesn’t merge with the Botta building design at all, but it works really well with it.

Above the enlarged lobby, there are four expanded floors, with two completely new floors of gallery space in the Snøhetta expansion (floors 8, 9, and 10 are not open to the public).The upper galleries are bathed in soft ambient light, with white walls and floors of fine light wood. A hallway allows easy access to the new galleries. No more wandering from room to room wondering how to find the exit. A new elevator bank and stairway, new restaurants, public areas, outdoor nooks and art-filled terraces provide needed respite. The stunning living wall with over 19,000 plants provides a verdant background for modern sculpture on the third floor terrace.

SFMOMA’s new galleries are highlighted by 260 works by 70 artists from the dazzling Fisher Collection. Sixty thousand square feet of space on the fourth, fifth and sixth floors contain works by renowned postwar and contemporary artists, including Chuck Close, Ellsworth Kelly, Anselm Kiefer, Roy Lichtenstein, Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell, Gerhard Richter, Richard Serra, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol. And these 20th-century masters are not just represented by one or two examples, but by broad groupings of seminal pieces that trace the artists’ creative evolution through entire bodies of work — one better than the next.

In addition to the world-renowned artists of postwar abstract, Pop, minimalist and art, one can find some great works of figurative art, including Edward Hopper’s “Intermission” (1963) and an intriguing portrait by Alice Neel, “Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian” (1978).

The new Pritzker Center for Photography nearly triples the amount of space for photography and fills most of SFMOMA’s third floor, including works by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Robert Adams, Larry Sultan and Henry Wessel. Modernist photography is well-represented, with special strength in art by American photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Charles Sheeler, as well as a collection of Modernist work in Europe from between the wars, by Man Ray, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and examples of Surrealism. The Center contains strong collections of work by Diane Arbus, Helen Levitt, Wright Morris, Garry Winogrand and other documentary-style photography. Look for Michael Jang’s “South of Market,” a silver gelatin print from 1975. Not only is it a worthy photograph, but it illustrates how much the SOMA area has changed since 1975.

An additional gallery on the third floor is dedicated to works by Alexander Calder, the late Don Fisher’s favorite artist. It contains major Calder works including a delightful small sculpture, Aquarium (1929). There also are wonderful colorful Calder mobiles facing the living wall on the third floor terrace. The ground floor lobby is the fitting home of a huge white Calder mobile.

It used to be that I would see special exhibitions at SFMOMA for an hour or two, but rarely would I spend a great deal of time touring the permanent collections. All that has dramatically changed. Now, there is much too much wonderful art to absorb in a single visit. The Fisher Collection will be rotated at intervals, so there will always be more of it to see. Plus, there will be special exhibits beginning in the fall. There is free public access to nearly 45,000 square feet of ground floor galleries, as well as a permanent commitment to free admission for all visitors 18 years and younger.

Although SFMOMA’s opening day, May 14, 2016, with its special hoopla, is already sold out, tickets for other days later in May and beyond are available on line. By all means, don’t wait too long to visit this amazing museum, now San Francisco’s premier cultural attraction.

By Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2016 All Rights Reserved.

San Francisco ,
Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for