Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Bringing art to the people

Fine Arts

The Oakland Museum reopens after renovation

The exterior of the Oakland Museum doesn't appear different, but what's inside is another story. Photo: Tim Griffith
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After a well-publicized two-year renovation, the Oakland Museum reintroduces itself to the community on May 1 and 2 with the unveiling of its $58 million dollar facelift, over 4,800 square feet of new gallery space, and a 31-hour extravaganza featuring free public programs and performances by the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band.

Except for the additions and a 90-foot canopy over a previously exposed walkway, the exterior of the building doesn't appear markedly different, but what's inside is another story. While retaining many of the features of Kevin Roche's landmark concrete building, San Francisco-based architects Mark Cavagnero Associates have mitigated the underground bunker sensation generated by Roche's once-in-vogue, now dated design by adding glass and ample natural light, creating an impression of interior spaciousness and buffing up and modernizing surfaces; concrete flooring has been polished, and white sheet-rock walls that highlight artworks have replaced the once unrelentingly monochromatic grays of the galleries in the original 41-year-old structure.

A repository of historical artifacts and the state's colorful and storied past, OMCA returns to its founding concept as a museum of the people. The diverse populations who migrated and settled California get their due and recount their stories of carving out a life in a sometimes harsh, often hostile environment. In the refurbished history galleries, first-person audio recordings of real-life accounts, from the Gold Rush and the Depression to WWII and the dark side of suburbia, have supplanted the omniscient narrator approach often favored by educational institutions, and the introduction of interactive features like touch tables has brought the museum into the present day, where technology and ground-level communication rule. (Although these first-floor galleries, which are now divided thematically rather than along purely chronological lines, have been opened up and brightened, the feeling of being in a basement has been abated but not purged.)

For Forces of Change, an exhibit on the turbulent 1960s and 70s, 24 individuals, including a former Black Panther and a folk singer, contributed dioramas reflecting their complex identities and formative experiences. Crystal Jang, a Chinese-American lesbian, was a student at SF State when she became involved in demonstrations for an Ethnic Studies department. In her display, which pinpoints a confluence of sexual and ethnic awakening, banners with a red-and-gold motif and a "Lesbians Unite!" poster represent her student activism and ethnic heritage, while photographs pay tribute to the central importance of family. Native American/lesbian artist L. Frank Manriquez's collage honors her grandmother, growing up in LA, John Lennon, the tentative beginnings of her identification as a lesbian (see an ad for a gay dance in LA) and youthful sexual exploration. An anti-war poster and a toy helicopter referencing Vietnam, a jean jacket with a Harley Davidson patch and

The Oakland Museum has undergone a two-year renovation. Photo: Tim Griffith
a sign reading, "In the darkroom your hands become eyes," round out a portrait of a blossoming creative psyche.

Many who discovered the free-thinking, liberal ways of San Francisco during WWII flocked to the city  after the war. Non Conformists, a section devoted to the bohemians and Beats of that period, features pop-culture relics such as bongo drums and a Vesuvio's sign from North Beach. The gown worn by Jose Sarria, "the Nightingale of Montgomery Street," from the parody of Aida he performed at the Black Cat, a script for the operetta The Merry Widow (Sarria's version was called The Merry Widder) opened to a page with a song proclaiming "it's OK to be gay," lyrics for "God Save Us Nelly Queens," and a recreation of a bar scene with a booming male chorus belting out that song to the tune of "God Save the Queen" are duly catalogued here, along with issues of The Ladder, the newsletter published by the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian rights organization established in San Francisco in 1955, and a photograph of its founders, the late Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the first same-sex couple to be married in the city in 2008.

Nowhere are the recent architectural upgrades more dramatic or welcome than on the second floor, where the art collection is housed. Two formerly outdoor spaces have been transformed into light, airy contemporary galleries that showcase artwork to maximum effect, as in the case of Robert Arneson's giant rendition of Jackson Pollock's head; the painter's troubled expression may be explained by the wolf standing lookout on his scalp.

For some time, though, OMCA has not been part of the conversation about cutting-edge art. Despite a blast of media coverage for the opening and a Pixar exhibition opening July 31, that status isn't likely to change. But here's a brief refresher on the museum's impressive pedigree. It was one of the first institutions to exhibit Bay Area figurative artists such as Nathan Oliveira, David Park, Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn (the latter's paintings are currently spotlighted); it has an extensive collection of Arthur and Lucia Mathews' furnishings, paintings and splendid stained glass such as a dreamy, floor-to-ceiling seascape created for the San Francisco City Club; and, it owns Dorothea Lange's archive of some 25,000 negatives and 10,000 prints.

To say that one can now see the art better and appreciate it more is a gross understatement; the collection has been brought into high relief and warrants another look. You'll be glad you did.

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