Three museums in San Francisco share artistic rebirth

Like, three sisters, the three major museums of San Francisco have overcome rivalries rooted in their origins to seek a new, mature and vibrant beauty.

In January 1995, the sensational new building for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta, opened with worldwide attention on the museum's 60th anniversary.

In September, the classically elegant California Palace of the Legion of Honor, modeled on the Palais de la Legion d'Honneur in Paris, reopened to rave reviews after a major seismic retrofitting and remodeling.

And, after a long debate about the future of the popular M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, trustees decided that it will remain where it has always been, in Golden Gate Park. Extensive rebuilding to modernize and make the oldest of the three museums earthquake-safe will begin next year.

In a city of arts and artists, these events have kept the public eye focused on its museums, which have been at the epicenter of new cultural activity and have acted as a magnet, drawing visitors from America and abroad.

That public eye was important from the beginning, when publishing baron Michael de Young, inspired by Chicago's 1893 international exposition and the Metropolitan Museum in New York's Central Park, staged a midwinter exposition in Golden Gate Park in 1894.

After the exposition, which de Young's San Francisco Chronicle declared "one of the greatest international expositions the world has ever known," he wanted a permanent home for some of the fair's surplus of "treasures and curious," which became the nucleus of the de Young Museum.

From a hodgepodge of stuffed birds and eggs, Alaskan and South Sea relics and mementos from pioneers, it grew to encompass American and European masterpieces, textiles, photography, and African, Asian, Oceanic and pre-Colombian American art.

Major donors included Samuel H. Kress, Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III, and Avery Brundage, whose world-class Asian art collection became the Asian Art Museum in 1973.

The Spanish-style structure has been the site of major exhibits since 1932 when it showcased such famous Bay Area photographers as Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Imogen Cunningham. In 1983, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip dined there with the President and Mrs. Reagan.

Social aspirations were fundamental to the birth of the city's museums, according to geographer and historian Gray Brechin, whose book "Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin" is forthcoming from the University of California Press.

Before founding the museum, M.H. de Young used the Chronicle to heckle rival robber-baron Claus Spreckels for alleged misdeeds in his Hawaiian sugar plantations. Outraged, Claus' son Adolph shot de Young in 1884.

The bad blood continued while the Spreckels bought their own paper, The Call, and while Adolph's wife Alma Spreckels in 1924 gave the city the beautiful Beaux-Arts-style Legion of Honor, on headlands overlooking the Golden Gate, in memory of Californians who died in World War I.

"Once Spreckels opened the Legion, the quality of art got better at the de Young because of their rivalry," contends Brechin.

But quality went up when the rivalry ended, too. In 1972 both museums were merged as the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which together hold more than 100,000 objects.

Today's visitors are rewarded by those changes.

Beyond pools, arches and columns, the courtyard of the Legion of Honor boast a statue of Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker." Its airy, spacious galleries house more than 4,000 years of European art, including medieval glass and sculpture, Dutch, English, Spanish and French paintings, and an outstanding Rodin collection.

To view modern and post-modern work, as well as a jewel in the crown of late 20th-century architecture, it's necessary to cross town to the popular South of Market urban park, Yerba Buena Gardens. There the striated, round tower of the Museum of Modern Art dominates the cityscape like a gigantic eye and brings the light inside.

According to Brechin, modern art was historically the domain of San Francisco's community of cultivated German Jews, who were excluded from other cultural circles.

With its expansion into the new building, the museum is now attracting interest worldwide.

Its 50,000 feet of exhibition space make it twice the size of most modern art museums. Permanent displays include works by Henri Matisse, Philip Guston, Frida Kahlo, Richard Diebenkorn, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Andy Warhol, as well as an outstanding photography collection.

But the great masterpiece may be Botta's new building itself.

According to critic Allan Temko, with its bookstore, cafe and children's school, "it is an Italian space," creating an indoor piazza.

There is also grandeur in its light, height and the daring footbridge crossing the tower. Botta himself has compared the structure to a cathedral.

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