USF's Museum Blog

SFMOMA: the 3 R’s of Transformation

by Kim Turner

Editor’s Note:  Kim Turner began her internship in the HR department at SFMOMA last Fall.  She is currently completing her MA in Museum Studies at USF.


When SFMOMA’s collection outgrew its signature Mario Botta building, SFMOMA stood at a crossroad. It clearly needed more space but it also wanted to change the way it was perceived as an arts and cultural hub in San Francisco. Reflecting on that time, Museum Director Neal Benezra stated, “We really want the museum to be more outward looking, to open up the doors and bring the public in.” It looks like this sentiment launched what I will call SFMOMA’s 3Rs of transformation– redesigning its space, rebranding its core principles, and reimagining its impact on and relationship with the community.

First, let’s turn our attention to the redesign. It is no accident, following a competitive bid process, that SFMOMA did not choose one of the usual suspects to redesign its building, museum ‘starchitects’ of world renown like Gehry or Piano. Instead, it selected Snøhetta, a Norwegian design firm that had a relatively short museum resume but was internationally known for its striking, sustainable and accessible public venues. SFMOMA was looking for more than a building; it was looking for an inspired engagement space. For SFMOMA, Snøhetta was as much spirit partner as it was design firm during the time when the museum was closed for remodeling. Snøhetta’s lead architect Craig Dykers observed that Botta’s monumental structure had created SFMOMA’s identity, but now, “rather than being an introverted building … SFMOMA needed to open its vistas, open its venues to the community.” Dykers makes a compelling case for his approach to museum design in this clip.


Lobby with Sol LeWitt's Loopy Doopy Mural

Lobby with Sol LeWitt’s Loopy Doopy Mural



So how did the redesign turn out? Let’s compare and contrast. The Botta building was symmetrical and Romanesque. It had no natural light was often characterized as a ‘fortress’. When I used to visit the old SFMOMA, the black granite Botta atrium felt somewhat claustrophobic to me. In contrast, the Snøhetta addition rises up and out behind the Botta structure, connecting old with new.

Old Meets New - Botta Atrium with New Staircase

Old meets new:  Botta atrium with new staircase.

As Dykers explained, the exterior reflects San Francisco’s “diversity, terrain and topography”, so it has a rippling horizontal design that conjures images of San Francisco’s fog, hills and the Bay. There are entrances on three sides with inviting public free spaces on the first and second floors and pedestrian pathways that enhance visitor circulation through the museum and within the SoMA neighborhood. There are outdoor terraces, places to pause and reflect, and warm natural light on most gallery floors. It is LEED certified as a ‘green’ structure.


Living Wall and Calder Sculpture

Living Wall and Calder sculpture


 Reviews of the architecture have been mostly raves. But the truly remarkable outcome is that two diametrically different structures have been seamlessly integrated into one coherent facility with natural circulation and flow.   It feels like the best of art, engineering and human invention, expressed in one captivating design.



New SFMOMA, viewed from Yerba Buena Gardens

New SFMOMA viewed from Yerba Buena gardens



Next, let’s move on to rebranding. When I started my internship last November at SFMOMA, ‘brand’ was the buzzword running underneath every conversation about the re-launch of the museum. Brand encompasses many ideas, but one pervasive aspect of SFMOMA’s brand is its new color. “Warm Red”, the hue of the new SFMOMA logo, signage and swag is not just a distinctive color; it is an attitude, a sensibility. It’s supposed to say, “join the conversation” and “explore with us.” Using a richly saturated color to brand an art museum is part poetry and part science. Red, at the far end of the color spectrum, conjures feelings of excitement, warmth and possibility, attributes that SFMOMA wants to arouse in its public. Human Resources Director Edward Lamberger says, “Warm Red is expansive. In combination with the new expanding logo, it makes the museum feel expansive.” The design team explains the logic behind the SFMOMA logo letters oscillating between a contracted and expanded version on its website.


Intern Swag in Warm Red

Intern SWAG in warm red

 SFMOMA also spent months honing brand principles that would guide organizational decision making into the future. Following a series of facilitated discussions, SFMOMA settled on the six new brand principles of “welcoming”, “surprising”, “boundaryless”, “illuminating”, “participatory” and “for our time” to describe what it offers as it reopens its doors to the community. These brand principles are now incorporated into employee onboarding, training and other enculturation materials for all staff.  It is interesting to see how these terms work their way into staff conversations on any number of topics. Rebranding, too, seems to have been an unqualified success.



SFMOMA Opening Day Celebration

Opening Day celebration

Finally, let’s touch briefly on reimagining SFMOMA’s impact on and relationship with the community. I say briefly because SFMOMA has only been open for a few weeks, so it’s a little early to assess impact. However, some promising harbingers of SFMOMA’s commitment include free admission for visitors under 18, extensive and diverse public programming and a strategy to bring three times more students than before to the museum each year. Time will tell as to whether the focus on broader engagement with diverse audiences has been achieved. But, if unwavering commitment is the key ingredient to success, SFMOMA’s future looks most promising.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words on Opening Day at SFMOMA

Opening Day at SFMOMA:  A picture’s worth a thousand words.


For more information on USF’s Museum Studies program click here.


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