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Behind the Scenes at the New San Francisco MOMA

SFMOMA - San Francisco, CA Museum of Modern Art Exterior
Snøhetta expansion of the new SFMOMA, 2016; photo: © Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA

Staying in the loop is easy when you have daily flights touching down in virtually every major city across America. But nowhere are we more connected to happenings on the ground than San Francisco, where XOJET was born, raised, and molded amid a burgeoning start-up culture brimming with technology and innovation.

“San Francisco is the perfect home base for us,” says Brad Stewart, XOJET President and CEO. “We’re honored to be a part of this forward-thinking community and constantly gain inspiration from the city around us.”

In that spirit, here’s a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most exciting recent developments around the bay: a state-of-the art addition to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.


San Francisco, California Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) Exterior

Michael Grimm Photography

“The facade conjures an iceberg, a pueblo, and an exceptional cruise ship,” wrote New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, reviewing the 10-story-high San Francisco Museum of Modern Art addition (235,000 sq. ft., $305 million), which reopened this past May. The museum is the one to see this fall if you want a view of modern architecture in action by one of the country’s go-to firms, Snohetta based in New York, and the evolution of our museum taste over nearly a quarter century.

The new building contrasts starkly and rises behind the original Mario Buatta structure of 1995. The Snohetta addition is not about more, but about how now, two decades later, we interact so differently with museums; how now we progress from one gallery to another; how now a new building becomes part of an older one without fitting in (the usual trope), but by changing the conversation. The new SF Museum of Modern Art stands up for the new, intelligently compromises with the old (the floors are on the same level), and is, as the Snohetta website puts it, “no longer an inward-looking shrine to the art object.” The goal, according to Snohetta co-founder Craig Dykers, “was to make the museum more accessible.”

San Francisco, CA Museum of Modern Art Lobby Sculpture

Michael Grimm Photography

Let’s start with this fact: Twenty-five percent of the exhibition space is now free, and there is a new entrance on Howard Street, which brings visitors into a gallery large enough to contain a 235-ton Richard Serra sculpture and Roman amphitheater seating—it’s part of the free area and already a gathering place. There is a Living Wall of 16,000 plants, the largest in the Bay Area.  They are both a symbol of the building itself: “The museum wanted a new face on the city streets,” says Lara Kaufman, Snohetta’s Project Architect for the expansion, “a dictate that directly led to the Howard Street Gallery.”

Snohetta used the design to customize the collection, which has doubled the total exhibition space, allowing many works to emerge from storage.  The gallery ceilings vary depending on the content. There are a series of galleries devoted to single artists movements (Minimalist and German Expressionist). Seven Agnes Martin paintings have an octagonal space of their own, and Ellsworth Kelly has a four-gallery survey of his work. The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, one of the world’s greatest collections of contemporary art, will be an anchor of the new museum through a partnership in which portions of the collection will be presented periodically. (The Fishers are the founders of The Gap.) The 15,000-square-foot Pritzker Center for Photography is the largest gallery in the U.S. dedicated to photography.

San Francisco, CA Museum of Modern Art Exterior

Michael Grimm Photography

As for the facade, its rippling horizontal bands—700 fiber-reinforced polymer panels attached to a curtain wall—were inspired by the waves of San Francisco Bay. Silicate crystals from Monterey Bay embedded in the panels are the secret ingredients; they make the facade change with the light. “We wanted to create a not-regular, off-the-shelf system,” says Kaufman. Translation: Custom variation. Snohetta turned to Bill Kreysler, head of Kreysler & Associates, whom Kaufman calls “a fabricator of all things fiberglass.”

The other big Snohetta innovation was the creation of a series of cascading stairs, inspired by San Francisco’s steep streets and public stairs. They connect the main galleries in the new wing, running down the facade and offering great views of downtown. They also make a point: This building does not partake of the escalator-mall mentality of so many new museums.

As Roberta Smith said, “The interplay of geometry, material, light, space, and angle of view as it relates to the installation of art is one of the building’s hallmarks.”

About the Contributor

Gary Walther has been a travel journalist for 40 years. He has been editor-in-chief of Departures, Expedia Travels, Luxury SpaFinder, and Forbes Life magazines, and for the past five years a freelancer with a column on called The Hotel Detective. He has passport stamps from 61 countries and is a million-miler on American Airlines. He writes for the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and Departures Europe among other publications.