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Deconstructing MOMA

SFMOMA’s soon-to-begin, three-year-long, $610 million metamorphosis has 280,000 moving parts—and that’s just the stuff in the trucks.

Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960
Where it usually hangs: SFMOMA’s second-floor galleries.
Where it’s going: The Contemporary Jewish Museum and the Asian Art Museum.
Getting it there: ”It’s actually light for its size,” says art handler Brandon Larson of the 9.5-foot by 8-foot piece. ”The only tricky thing is that the painting extends around the sides, and you don’t want to mar that. Also, it’s very tall, so you have to have good balance."


Neal Benezra is looking out the window of his surprisingly modest office, surveying a neighborhood that, thanks to his grand vision as director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is about to become even more popular—and congested—than it already is. Over there is Yelp’s eventual headquarters; beyond that the future 61-floor Transbay Transit Tower. Where Minna Street hunches between the more confident Mission and Howard streets, the museum’s new 225,000-square-foot addition will soon hover like a spaceship from Planet Starchitect.

Two decades ago, this was a landscape of warehouses and parking lots. Now it’s the center of a new Silicon Valley—and San Francisco’s economic and cultural heart. How has the accident of being in the right place at the right time helped transform SFMOMA from a smallish museum with a few great paintings into what photographer Leo Rubinfien (who curated the museum’s recent Garry Winogrand retrospective) calls “an institution of national, and soon international, importance”? Benezra mock-bristles at the notion that any of this was accidental. “We like to think," he says, “that we were prescient.”

Whether SFMOMA was incredibly farsighted or just incredibly lucky, there’s little doubt that in the 18 years since it relocated to its zebra-striped palazzo on Third Street, the institution has played an outsize role in the creation of modern-day San Francisco. Now the museum is on the cusp of another enormous transformation, one that comes at an awkward time and carries more than a little risk.

The expansion project, which starts in earnest this summer, will allow the museum to house the Fisher family’s 1,100-piece contemporary art collection, one of the largest and most important in the world, elevating SFMOMA to the same heady tier as New York’s MoMA and London’s Tate (at least in post-WWII art). But to make that happen, the museum has to shut its doors for a few years, an act of disruption that couldn’t be more San Francisco circa 2013.

And then there’s this: Instead of using the old model of handling a major expansion—creating an interim space to continue programming on a reduced scale—the museum is sharing its riches with institutions around the Bay Area in a series of shows that will start to roll out this summer. Meanwhile, it is closing down the old building and trucking away its contents, an operation that resembles Ocean’s Eleven (without the heist) in its audacity, precision, and sense of excitement. All the while, museum bigwigs are using the new Snøhetta-designed building and the Fisher cachet to fundraise like crazy. (They’ve been so successful that they just upped the capital campaign goal by 11 percent, to $610 million.)

Ambitious, yes. But donors here seem to expect something bold from a cultural institution on the cutting edge. After all, Benezra says, innovation “is very much what contemporary art is about."

Read more about making the new MOMA:
Introduction: Deconstructing MOMA
Phase One: Packing Up
Phase One: By the Numbers
Phase One: Movers and Shakers
Phase One: Hard Cases
Phase Two: The Road Show
Phase Two: Can I Play With Your Pollock?
Phase Two: Meanwhile, Back At The Fischer Collection
Phase Three: The Reboot
Phase Three: There Goes The Neighborhood


Originally published in the June 2013 issue of San Francisco

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