USF's Museum Blog

Behind the scenes at SFMOMA

by Sabrina Oliveros


For museum studies students in San Francisco, it is a bit disappointing that the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is closed until 2016. However, some things can make up for it—like learning how the museum keeps opening itself up for learning, even when its doors are literally shut.



Video stills from Julia Scher’s Predictive Engineering2 1998 Source:

This fall, 15 first-year students in University of San Francisco‘s MA Museum Studies Curatorial Practicum class got this treat as we met Dr. Robin Clark, the new director of SFMOMA’s Artist Initiative. We learned firsthand about the nine-month-old project that is bound to make SFMOMA even more dynamic once it reopens after renovation. The Artist Initiative has curators, conservators, and artists all working together to develop new ways to best document, preserve, interpret, and share living artists’ works. At the moment, their efforts are focused on five key areas of SFMOMA’s collections: photography in the 1970s, high-tech design in the Bay Area, and works by Ellsworth Kelly, Vija Celmins, and Julia Scher.


As stated in its official press release, the project is expected to “restore the flow of ideas from the studio into the museum and back again.” Through this exchange of ideas, SFMOMA aims to enrich existing knowledge about contemporary art. The museum then plans to share this knowledge further through peer colloquiums, web publishing platforms, and in-gallery experiences. The Artist Initiative is a fine example of how little in museums can be completed in isolation—a point Dr. Clark repeatedly and emphatically drove home to the class.


Dr. Robin Clark

Dr. Robin Clark

Dr. Clark also took us on a brief tour of SFMOMA’s Collections Center (CC), where some of the Artist Initiative’s work takes place. The 75,000-square-foot facility currently houses the majority of SFMOMA’s collections. Both a storage and research site, a good part of it is open warehouse space punctuated with makeshift offices and studios. During our tour, this only reinforced the idea that there are no closed boundaries between museum departments.


As we passed through their workspaces, staff members from SFMOMA generously talked about other projects that keep the museum active. Heads of the collection and other departments discussed SFMOMA’s traveling exhibits, as well as its digital databases and online catalogs. Touching on a key facet of the Artist Initiative, the conservation team spoke of how they themselves open up to unconventional solutions to unconventional problems. At one time, they noted, they scoured butcher shops in the Mission district to find the right kind of animal intestines used in sausage: just one of the new types of materials from which contemporary art is sometimes made.


Yet the best treat was getting sneak peeks of the new and renovated SFMOMA. The new addition promises to further open the museum space and collections to the community. Our class explored the CC’s mock-up gallery, which replicates a standard gallery setting and serves as a testing ground for everything from floorboards and lighting panels to the exact height artwork must be hung. During our visit, the 1,300-square-foot space featured objects being considered for accession.


The mock-up gallery also doubles as a laboratory, studio, and research space for the Artist Initiative. For example, it has already been used by the artist Julia Scher to install and test elements of her complex media work “Predictive Engineering.” The piece will be updated later for installation in the new SFMOMA.


The end of our tour saw us marveling at dollhouse miniatures of the new museum’s six floors and rooftop terrace. Complete with tiny replica paintings and sculptures, the miniature models help visualize spaces, stairwells, and wall textures, and help designers configure the permanent collection installations in the galleries. At first glance, the mock-ups might have suggested a sense of play. Yet it grew clear that the thought and effort put into perfecting these models—into perfecting the new museum—were nothing short of real.


By the end of our visit, one other thing was clear: We couldn’t wait for SFMOMA to reopen in 2016. That didn’t mean we weren’t thrilled that, in its stead, the CC had opened its doors to University of San Francisco’s museum studies program.

Here are links to videos about this exciting project:

  1. Building Our Future: SFMOMA Expands –
  2. SFMOMA Expansion Virtual Tour –

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