San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: Your Ultimate Guide

People view a painting by Diego Rivera at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, California on January 3, 2023.

People view a painting by Diego Rivera at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, California on January 3, 2023.

Xinhua News Agency/Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

But the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) has found a way thanks to its convenient SoMa location, unusual opening hours, dynamic and diverse programs and exhibitions, free giveaways, and its quirky, pop-art-inspired exterior.

Keep reading to learn why SFMOMA outshines other art institutions in the city.

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The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was the first of its kind

When SFMOMA opened in 1935, it was the first museum on the West Coast dedicated to modern and contemporary art. In its first decade, SFMOMA exhibited works by luminaries such as Diego Rivera and Henri Matisse. It even hosted Jackson Pollock’s first solo museum exhibition. Today, the museum’s permanent collection includes a broad mix of 20th and 21st century art, with diverse collections including cubism, brutalism, pop art, abstract expressionism, minimalism, photography and much more.

“He (Bedford) seems to be really making a difference in symphoma,” says Landry, who was already aware of Bedford’s work when he was at the helm of the Baltimore Museum of Art. “I like that they are putting more effort into every space in the building, trying really hard to bring in more diversity and inclusion and to present art in a new and interesting way. For me, the museum is an exciting place.” The current and upcoming exhibitions are the best evidence of this.

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A third-floor balcony, part of SFMOMA's 2016 expansion, features the Living Wall, an installation by gardener David Brenner.

A third-floor balcony, part of SFMOMA’s 2016 expansion, features the Living Wall, an installation by gardener David Brenner.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Garrone, Special to SFGATE

Enjoy expansive views at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

A few years ago, the museum underwent a three-year, $305 million expansion and renovation. The redesigned SFMOMA Museum was unveiled in 2016. The redesign significantly expanded the scope of the museum, doubling its overall size and tripling its exhibition space. The renovated exterior consists of white fiberglass panels that have been described as “sloping” and “cloud-like,” a tribute to the city’s fog and waves. Unfortunately, as of spring 2023, the device used to clean the baseboards will no longer be functional, so the once shiny white boards are now a dark greenish-gray color.

One of the highlights of the expansion is the “living wall” located on the third floor of the museum. It is an extensive vertical garden made up of 37 native plant species, living on a beautiful outdoor terrace. In his artistic statement, the wall’s designer, gardener David Brenner, suggests that the best way to fully experience the wall is to walk along the terrace “as if it were a trail within a forest. The path provides the viewer with many intimate discoveries of fragrance, color and texture in the foliage.” He also suggests viewing the wall sideways “where the different dimensions of the plant forms are displayed and where the undulating white facade of the building is embraced by the soft texture and density of the plants. It is the place where nature and architecture meet and become one.”

Diego Rivera's large painting Pan American Unity attracts the viewer's attention on the first floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Diego Rivera’s large painting Pan American Unity captures the viewer’s attention on the first floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Christy Gee via Yelp

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How to Experience the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for Free

While most museums stop non-paying visitors at the door, SFMOMA offers access to 45,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space during museum hours, with no admission fee.

On the first floor, Diego Rivera’s floor-to-ceiling, 60,000-plus-pound mural, Pan American Unity, currently dominates the free Roberts Family Gallery on the first floor. (The mural is on display at SFMOMA until March 2024, when it will return to San Francisco City College.) Also on the first floor is Julie Mehretu’s sprawling Howl, Time (I, II) is also available free of charge to visitors. At 27 feet high and 32 feet wide, Mehretu’s massive paintings are impossible to miss. The museum’s cavernous lobby also houses the expansive, public-access Museum Shop which has something for everyone, from a $1,950 signed Cindy Sherman Film Still Triptych skateboard to a $5 SFMOMA stainless steel drinking straw set and an extensive collection of artwork and books the design.

The second floor of SFMOMA houses a number of free exhibits (in some cases, you still need to make a reservation; check the website for details), as well as Steps Coffee, which offers ample seating and doesn’t require a museum ticket. It’s the perfect place to get inspired while sipping a latte and even get some work done if you need a quiet, even though it’s still crowded, space. A number of tables overlook Rivera’s mural.

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It doesn’t stop there. Admission to the museum is free for those 18 and under at all times, and free for residents of the nine Bay Area counties on the first Thursday of each month. Not bad for a museum whose standard admission fee for adults is $25. Reservations can be made up to two weeks in advance and are highly recommended. (Maximum of two adult tickets per person.) There are also Free Family Days, where admission to the museum is free for up to four adults accompanying a child 18 or under.

Beat the Blues Monday at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Bucking the museum trend of closing on Mondays, SFMOMA is only closed on Wednesdays. Open every other day from 10am to 5pm (except Thursdays, when it opens at 1pm and closes at 8pm).

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“I like SFMOMA because it’s easy to get to by BART, they’re open on Mondays and they have late evening hours on Thursdays,” says Landry, who has been a member for about a decade. “It makes a perfect date or get-together with friends.”

The Cake Show, one of 47 works by renowned Californian artist Wayne Thiebaud in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The Cake Show, one of 47 works by renowned Californian artist Wayne Thiebaud in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Paul L via Yelp

How to get to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

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How long should you plan to visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art?

With seven floors, it would be difficult to get to the museum in less than a few hours. One can easily spend an entire day in SFMO. there Which Lots of art – and good art. If you get hungry, you have three dining options. In addition to Steps Coffee, there is Grace Restaurant on the first floor (no museum ticket required). The name pays tribute to Grace McCann Morley, the museum’s first director. On the fifth floor is Café 5, an indoor/outdoor café connected to the museum’s sculpture garden (museum ticket required). You’ll want to stay at Café 5 with its city skyline views and extensive balcony sculptures.

look for it: SFMOMA, 151 3rd Street, San Francisco, CA 94103; 415-357-4000

This story was edited by Hearst Newspapers Managing Editor Christina Moy. You can contact her at kristina.moy@hearst.com.

(tags for translation) Baltimore Museum of Art

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