Can the New SFMOMA Turn Tech-Bros Into Art Patrons?


Snøhetta expansion of the new SFMOMA. Photo: © Iwan Baan, courtesy SFMOMA.

Art + Tech: Strategies for the Digital Age at the #newSFMOMA

"I am the love child of people who love art and people who love tech," announces a sultry voice in my ear. This is how the new SFMOMA mobile app defines itself. Combining geolocating technology with immersive audio tours, the iOS app claims to represent "a new breed of museum app experience," and is one of the forward-looking methods through which San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is distinguishing its new identity, and inaugurating its new building. To anyone who has observed the changes occurring in the San Francisco Bay Area in the wake of the tech boom, the fact that SFMOMA is embracing a new core of digital engagement strategies as one of the primary identifying features in its re-launch should come as no surprise. Charles Schwab, the Chair of SFMOMA's Board of Trustees, announced it at the press preview as "a museum for the age of sharing."

The new SFMOMA, view from Yerba Buena Gardens. Photo: © Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA..

SFMOMA, which re-opens to the public on May 14, 2016, has been closed for nearly three years. The museum didn't disappear entirely during this time; it went "On The Go," mounting exhibitions and staging events at other venues. Yet while the museum was undergoing the construction of a $305 million expansion, adding 100,000 square feet of gallery space to its building and a distinctive new entity to the San Francisco skyline, the city around it was undergoing massive changes, too. In 2013, the construction cranes over SFMOMA joined the multitude of others building up the downtown landscape with new luxury apartment buildings in a seismic socioeconomic and cultural shift already in process, as an influx of wealth from the burgeoning Silicon Valley-based tech industry threatened the vibrant mix and unique character of the city. San Francisco was becoming "Googlized, stripped of artists, minorities, and the non-rich," as one observer put it at the time.

Charles Ray, Sleeping woman, 2012, solid stainless steel, 35 1/2 x 44 1/2 x 50 in. Collection SFMOMA. © Charles Ray. Photo: courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

Personally, after spending a few years away from San Francisco, the transformation is startling--in appearance and in culture. Relentless development and gentrification has taken root all over the city. On my Uber ride over to SFMOMA's press preview I shared the car with two other passengers who never once looked up from their phones. How does one engage this new kind of audience?

German Art after 1960: The Fisher Collection exhibition at SFMOMA. Photo: © Iwan Baan, courtesy SFMOMA.

The new SFMOMA is optimistic it can reach out to a digital-driven public. "Digital tools can strengthen the connection between art and people," SFMOMA Director Neal Benezra stated, as he introduced the museum's digital program, which includes interactive media installed in various interpretive galleries and other displays. The centerpiece of the program is the app, which detects the viewer's location in the museum, triggering audio programming related to the artwork the viewer is standing next to, or simply identifying where the nearest bathroom is. (No human interaction necessary.) The technology allows for an audio tour experience that is seamless and immersive. Notable and unexpected voices guide the viewer through unique and personal takes of the museum: Avery Trufelman of the architecture radio program 99% Invisible leads a tour of the new architectural features of the building; high-wire walker Philippe Petit leads a tour encouraging the viewer to run through the museum; a German woman leads the viewer on an emotional journey through the galleries of Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter. In addition, there are hundreds of individual recorded responses to the artwork on view, with commentary by artists, composers, comedians, and many others. "We saw that audio tours have this great potential," Erica Gangsei, head of SFMOMA's Interpretive Media department, explained to me, "it's like having your favorite podcast in your ear."

Jananne Al-Ani, Shadow Sites II (still), 2011, single-channel HD video projection, color, with sound, 8:38 min. Jointly owned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. © Jananne Al-Ani. Photo: Adrian Warren.

Along with the complementary digital content and interpretation, new media art infuses many of SFMOMA's inaugural exhibitions, with video and screen-based works by Matthew Barney, Rivane Neuenschwander, and Owen Kydd among the painting, sculpture, and photography sections. The seventh floor of the new building contains the Media Arts galleries, where the museum demonstrates its longstanding dedication to time-based media, sound- and computer-based artwork with an exhibition, Film as Place, featuring an early video installation by Beryl Korot, a film by Jananne Al-Ani, and Julia Scher's Predictive Engineering (1993-2016), an installation of surveillance cameras and video feeds.

Laura Hyunjhee Kim at SFMOMA. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Jenny Sharaf.

It was in Scher's surveillance installation where I encountered a group of local artists, documenting themselves interacting with the artwork. San Francisco-based new media artist Laura Hyunjhee Kim was wearing a wolf mask and making noises into a microphone connected to the surveillance installation, while Oakland-based artist and electronic musician Ricardo Saavedra recorded the proceedings along with San Francisco-based artists Jenny Sharaf and Cara Rose DeFabio. As Kim explained to me, the artists were invited to the museum's press preview day to "document something special and spontaneous at SFMOMA geared towards the social media audience."  As an artist whose practice is deeply involved in digital technology, and as a resident of San Francisco, Laura Hyunjhee Kim has first-hand experience with both sides of the tech boom in the Bay Area.  It is something that has prompted the closures of art spaces and the mass relocation of many artists out of the Bay Area, while also providing fodder and inspiration for her work. It provides a somewhat strange and isolating environment. "I sometimes do forget that I live in a socio-cultural tech bubble," she admits. While there have been detrimental effects to the local arts community due to the influx of tech capital, Kim has also seen how it has brought the remaining artists together and "fueled the arts community to be more creative and experimental utilizing alternative spaces."

Takeshi Murata, Monster Movie, 2005, single-channel video, color, with sound, 4 min. Collection SFMOMA. © Takeshi Murata. Photo: courtesy the artist and Ratio 3, San Francisco.

While artists keep their tenuous hold on the city, a wave of new commercial art spaces has accompanied the imminent re-opening of SFMOMA. As SFMOMA looks to the tech community as a source of new potential patrons and museum-goers, commercial galleries are also chasing tech-industry wealth: Gagosian and John Berggruen are opening new galleries adjacent to the museum; Pace recently opened up a gallery right in the heart of Silicon Valley's Palo Alto; and Minnesota Street Project aims to create a vital urban center of commercial galleries and studio space in the Dogpatch district. "In theory, more commercial art and spaces that sell art is great!" says Kim, "However, how many of the artists residing within the city benefit from this? It is not for everyone." A sustainable art ecology is an elusive but important goal in the Bay Area, one perhaps only achieved through the cooperation of people who love art, and people who love tech.

Roberts Family Gallery featuring Richard Serra's Sequence (2006) at SFMOMA. Photo: © Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA.

--Natalie Hegert