Inside SFMOMA’s Renovation and Reinvention


For three years, the Bay Area was without its beloved San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Though SFMOMA launched a schedule of off-site programs around the city, the Third Street hub was undergoing an extensive renovation and expansion totaling $305 million in construction costs alone. The wait and resources were well worth the result, though—in May the completely revamped, environmentally friendly museum opened to the public with an additional 10-floor extension as well as three times more gallery space, including a free ground floor exhibition, and has set what the New York Times called a new standard for museums around the world.



Guests surveying The Fisher Collection. (Photo by Iwan Baan; courtesy of SFMOMA)


But critics aren’t just praising the architectural changes and its effect on the city’s South of Market Street area, known as SoMa. In conjunction with the renovation, SFMOMA launched its commissioning program with site-specific artwork, including an inaugural exhibition of a textile mural by Dutch artist Claudy Jongstra, and has an advanced digital strategy, including an innovative museum app developed with local company Detour, that provides podcast-quality, location-specific audio tours. With 45,000 square feet of free, art-filled public space and free admission for visitors 18 and under, the museum is also hoping to enhance the community in which it resides. “We want the new SFMOMA to be a true community resource,” says Neal Benezra, who has been director of SFMOMA since 2002. “These are a few of many ways we hope to serve a broader audience, claim our role as cultural hub in the center of this great city and inspire a new generation with meaningful art experiences.”

An Architectural Gem

This wasn’t the first big change for SFMOMA, which was originally called the San Francisco Museum of Art when it was established in 1935. At its inception, the museum displayed an original collection, including art by famed Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, on the fourth floor of the War Memorial Veterans Building, across from San Francisco City Hall. In 1995, the collection was moved to the new Third Street building, which was designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta.

Today, the museum blends seamlessly with Botta’s design, but takes into account the drastic transformation of SoMa of the last two decades and prioritizes sustainability. Designed by Snøhetta, an award-winning international architectural firm, the expanded museum is on track to receive LEED Gold certification, with a 46 percent reduction in energy use and 60 percent decrease in potable water use.

With the transformation of the neighborhood into a lively pedestrian and commercial zone, the SFMOMA expansion had the chance to truly realize the museum’s mission of increased public engagement,” says project architect Jon McNeal. This is most prominent in the new Roberts Family Gallery, where floor-to-ceiling windows allow people along Howard Street to view the artwork from the sidewalk or vehicles. This gallery is free to the public and opens an hour before the rest of the building, making art more visible and accessible to the public than was possible in the original building. This new transparency is a reflection of how the neighborhood has changed since the original SFMOMA building opened.”



The museum was redesigned by Snøhetta. (Photo by Iwan Baan; courtesy of SFMOMA)


The facade of the expansion welcomes visitors with 700 uniquely shaped fiberglass-reinforced polymer (FRP) panels, the design of which evolved by observing the site and San Francisco more generally. “The facade is evocative of the natural processes of the Bay Area, visually embodying the ephemera of sunlight, fog, wind and water,” McNeal says. “Its distinctive, rippled geometry is dynamic in all types of light, and its cantilevered and double-curved form maximizes daylight and clear space in the public realm at ground level. This increased daylight access combines with a new public pedestrian circulation pathway and a highly transparent facade to beckon and welcome visitors to the expansion.” Since FRP is also a lightweight material, it allows for fewer structural columns and braces inside the building, leading to more flexible and open gallery spaces.

Those gallery spaces are plentiful. All employ sustainable LED lighting, and include additional spaces for performance and film. For example, the Gina and Stuart Peterson White Box and the Phyllis Wattis Theater provide double-height spaces for performances and events. The fourth floor is also home to a new 1,100-square-foot space dedicated to exhibiting emerging artists, while the two-story, 4,200-square-foot Elise S. Haas Conservation Studio is dedicated to art conservation and provides a studio space for artists. Two galleries on the seventh floor feature 4,400 square feet of space dedicated to media arts, and 3,500 more square feet on floors three and six are dedicated to architecture and design.

Outside, there are six terraces that feature installations and sculpture, including the largest public living wall in the United States, which features over 19,000 living plants supported by a recycled water system.

But perhaps the most impressive design element of the expansion is the new sculptural staircase that goes from the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Atrium to the second floor. Project manager Lara Kaufman says it is her favorite architectural component of the whole project. “To make the most of SFMOMA’s unique urban site and gallery arrangement, we made the stairs into something more than just purely functional,” she says. “The stairs along the City Gallery hug the inner wall of the facade and provide a complementary experience to viewing artwork in the galleries. Walking along the stairs is a treat, energizing the mind and feet on the way to the next exhibit, acting as a kind of palette cleanser.”



These pieces are from the Campaign for Art Modern and Contemporary exhibition. (Photo by Iwan Baan; courtesy of SFMOMA)


World-Class Works

With 170,000 square feet of exhibition space, SFMOMA is able to display additional pieces from its growing collection of more than 33,000 works of art. Doris and Donald Fisher, the founders of San Francisco-based Gap Inc., have partnered with the museum since the 1980s to display selections from their collection of over 1,100 works by 185 major American and European artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, including works by Agnes Martin, Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol. The new Fisher Collection galleries encompass a whopping 60,000 square feet of space across three floors. Inaugural exhibitions in the Fisher Galleries include “Pop, Minimal, and Figurative Art” and “German Art after 1960.”

“We’re excited to serve as a model for public-private partnerships with our groundbreaking Fisher Collection partnership,” Benezra says. “There needed to be a third way for a great museum to work with a great collector, and I think we found it.” He says the Ellsworth Kelly galleries and Agnes Martin gallery in “Approaching American Abstraction” on the fourth floor are among the highlights of the new museum. Pieces include works from Kelly’s Paris period, including “Cité” (1951) and “Spectrum I” (1953).

SFMOMA was one of the first American museums to recognize photography as an art form and today the institution carries on its commitment to the expression. With more than 17,000 photographic works in its collection, it’s no surprise that the museum dedicated ample space to the medium in its expansion design. Located on the third floor, The Pritzker Center for Photography is the largest permanent space dedicated to photography in the United States.

“We are gratified to be one of the world’s leading postwar and contemporary art museums, continually trying to raise the bar with our work with emerging artists, our use of technology, and new commissioning programs and performance residencies,” Benezra says.



The New York Times says SFMOMA has set a new standard for museums. (Photo by Iwan Baan; courtesy of SFMOMA)

SFMOMA in the Digital Age

Firmly situated in what is widely considered the most important startup hub in the world, SFMOMA has embraced the digital age. The old lecture-style audio tours have been replaced by a sophisticated, modern museum app. Created in partnership with San Francisco startup Detour, which creates podcast quality, GPS-driven guided walks in city neighborhoods, the SFMOMA tours are diverse and interactive, and in some cases, narrated by famous voices like the stars of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”

Andrew Mason, the founder of Detour, says the indoor positioning system uses Wi-Fi routers to triangulate and track users’ positions and present them with relevant information. “It can update the phone based on the room and the artwork that’s around you and makes the experience of interacting with the artwork effortless,” he says. “Little things about the way that smartphones have evolved have opened up the way people interact with things immensely.”

The app even allows groups to take a tour together, with the narration synced among users. There is also a simpler setting option that allows you to get information about specific works in your immediate vicinity.

The large number of shorter tours—some funny, others more serious—give visitors the advantage of choosing tours based on their interests and relationship with art. “There is a variety of contexts in which people arrive at the museum,” Mason says. “Everyone has a different relationship with art—some are bought in, others are more skeptical. These tours provide different things for different people.”


By Tiffanie Wen