- “Passage,” by Dan Das Mann and Karen Cusolito, towers over the Embarcadero, and from the correct angle, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Photography by Charles R. Lucke
Gold put San Francisco on the map. When the precious metal was discovered in the Sierra foothills in 1848, fortune seekers from around the globe rushed to the tiny port, intending to return home with fat purses. Instead, many stayed, beguiled by the congenial climate and the beauty of the hills and the bay. Almost overnight, the sleepy village became an energetic, creative, international city.
Today’s visitors are lured not by gold but by breathtaking vistas and urban sophistication with a multicultural flair. Art is everywhere one looks, from the famed murals of the Mission District and Coit Tower to the booths of craft vendors at summer street fairs. Right now, the art scene is especially dynamic, with new galleries and museums opening, and established ones moving into posh new quarters.
“It’s such a rich and diverse city,” says JoAnn Edwards, co-founder and executive director of the San Francisco Museum of Craft+Design. “It’s exciting to be here.”
She founded the museum to bring new appreciation to the role that craft and design play in our lives. Changing exhibitions explore the ways that artists are inspired by everyday objects like toys and tools, or materials like glass and textiles. The museum store tempts buyers with beautiful items handcrafted in wood, fiber, clay, metal or glass.
Union Square, in the heart of downtown, is a haven for art lovers. The surrounding blocks are filled with galleries, most of them traditional fine arts venues. Here you can buy Chagall and Picasso as well as top contemporary artists. Many galleries bear the names of venerable art dealers like Paule Anglim, John Berggruen, Rena Bransten, Cheryl Haines and George Krevsky. “A work of art isn’t finished until someone responds to it,” Krevsky says. “I like being that part of the creative process.” One legendary address in Union Square, 49 Geary Street, is shared by about 20 galleries.
San Francisco’s international character is captured at places like Xanadu Gallery, which carries folk art and antiquities from around the world. The gallery itself is a work of art, a Frank Lloyd Wright design that resembles a miniature Guggenheim Museum. Japonesque, in historic Jackson Square, provides a serene environment for art with an Asian aesthetic.
Across Market Street, which bisects downtown, the art personality is edgier. In the 1990s, two major institutions arrived in SoMa, local shorthand for South of Market. They began the transformation of this once-derelict area into a vibrant museum district.
First came the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Local artists and civic leaders created this complex of theaters and galleries to put the arts at the center of the community. The adjacent Yerba Buena Gardens, with flower-lined paths, grassy lawns and a mesmerizing waterfall, quickly became a favorite spot for outdoor art events.
Soon the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art moved in across the street. Its spectacular building, designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta, helped SFMOMA become a cultural cornerstone for the city and one of the nation’s foremost art museums.
The two big names drew in other cultural organizations. A dozen are now clustered in the neighborhood. Shops, restaurants and galleries enliven the scene.
Newcomers include the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, which explores the traditions of folk art and how it has inspired contemporary artists. Its store offers works by more than 50 artists, most from the Bay Area.
Nearby Sculpturesite Gallery is an indoor/outdoor space for three-dimensional art. Its sculpture-filled plaza delights the eye and entices visitors to the door. To create Varnish Fine Art, sculptors Jennifer Rogers and Kerri Stephens renovated a century- old building in SoMa into an attractive showplace for fine art and sculpture. In one corner they put a wine bar for a daily happy hour. “It makes art accessible,” Stephens says. “People enjoy hanging out with the art.”
Deeper into SoMa, ArtHaus provides an intimate setting for museum-quality work by contemporary artists. Co-owners James Bacchi and Annette Schutz present such works by New York and Bayarea artists. The veteran Braunstein/ Quay Gallery calls itself a crossover gallery—a fine-arts environment that displays works of clay, fiber and glass alongside sculpture and paintings.
The building boom extended well beyond SoMa. The Asian Art Museum moved in 2003 to larger quarters on Civic Center Plaza. An artful renovation turned the city’s former main library into an elegant setting for a world-renowned collection that spans 6,000 years of Asian art and culture.
In 2005 the de Young Museum unveiled its extraordinary facility in Golden Gate Park. The copperclad exterior and flowing interior spaces showcase the art in a setting that honors the park’s natural environment. During the first year, 1.6 million visitors toured the museum and its collections of art from the Americas, Africa and the Pacific. A stop not to be missed is the Dorothy and George Saxe Collection of Contemporary Craft, which features works in glass, ceramic, metal, wood and fiber by such prominent artists as Robert Arneson, Dale Chihuly, Sam Maloof and Kiki Smith.
Amid all the changes around town, one major museum has stayed put. The Legion of Honor, which specializes in European art, remains in its beloved Beaux Arts building in Lincoln Park, on a bluff overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Visitors receive a brooding welcome from Auguste Rodin’s famous bronze statue, “The Thinker.”
Every neighborhood has art to offer. In Hayes Valley, an enclave of boutiques and Victorian homes, Octavia’s Haze Gallery glows with the light and color of its specialty hand-blown art glass. Nearby, F. Dorian and Art Options share a space where global artifacts blend with crafts by American artists in a harmonious display. On Polk Street, Velvet da Vinci is known for art jewelry and metal craft. The Cannery, near Fisherman’s Wharf, is the site of Verdigris, where artists Christa Assad, Rae Dunn and Mary Mar Keenan maintain their clay studio and a shop selling work by more than 30 ceramic artists. For seekers of artistic gold, San Francisco is the mother lode.