Given that SFMOMA is asserting its cultural might against the benchmarks of its East Coast 'rivals' - it has been previously 'lost out' for having a weaker modern art collection compared to the holy grail held by MOMA - director Neal Benezra is focusing on contemporary (1960s-onwards) art:
The director talks of the reopening being a “game changer for San Francisco”, but is careful to emphasise that the museum is now world-class in “contemporary” art – work, that is, from the last four decades of the 20th century and since – rather than “modern”. “I define modern art as going up through abstract expressionism,” he explains, “then with Warhol and Lichtenstein and the pop artists, Johns and Rauschenberg, there is a return to the visible world in one way or another. And to me that’s … contemporary art.”
... Benezra offers no apology for where SFMOMA’s strength lies, and as we tour the galleries his excitement at the remarkable bounty of the new museum is obvious. “You’ll be hard pressed to see a better room of Warhols,” he says, pointing out celebrated new acquisitions including Silver Marlon, with Brando on his Triumph motorbike from The Wild One, and the Triple Elvis, as well as the museum’s own famous study of Elizabeth Taylor on horseback, National Velvet. There is also a “museum within a museum” of 26 works by Kelly, who became a good friend of Doris Fisher. These include the jazzy arrangement of rectangles Cité from 1951, and the vivid stripes of Spectrum I, as well as the sliced shapes of Red Curves (1996) and Blue Panel (1985). The Kelly rooms, Benezra says, are “strikingly beautiful”: “We expect our colleagues in other museums to be green with envy.”Now, I adore Ellsworth Kelly. When I first saw a whole room of Kellys, I cried. But as I was reading the article I couldn't help noticing the paucity of women artists being name-checked compared to men, to the point where I had to get up and grab some paper and a pencil so I could do a count. It worked out as 32 named male artists to 7 named female artists (not all the male artists are necessarily represented in the new displays - Picasso, for example, is noted for not being well represented at the museum).
This might well be unconscious bias on the part of the author, or a quirk of the way the tour of the building was organised, or perhaps there were far more works by women artists on display that just didn't make the cut for the final article (no works by women artists are represented in the images either). But even when we get to the top floor and the most recent art - the self-consciously contemporary zone - it's all men:
The top floor of the museum leaves the Fisher collection behind and brings the museum’s holdings up to date, by showing media arts and works made since 1980. “We wanted it to be the most contemporary space,” Benezra says: instead of a ceiling, the ductwork has been left exposed for a rather predictable touch of industrial chic. We walk past a Jeff Wall light box not yet switched on, and pieces by Ai Weiwei, Matthew Barney and Richard Prince.The article makes an interesting contrast to this recent interview with Frances Morris, the director of Tate Modern, which is also about to reopen a major extension. Morris has taken a feminist approach to curating (though it makes me a bit sad, still, that showing women artists should be a considered a feminist act and not simply a curatorial standard) and the re-opened Tate Modern will position the museum in our current cultural focus on diversity:
For the past decade, she has been devoted to building up the Tate’s international collections of modern and contemporary art, and has also been the curator of, during the past decade, a trio of important exhibitions of women artists: Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama and Agnes Martin. This rebalancing towards work by women has become an increasing priority for Morris, along with shifting the gaze of the institution away from just Europe and the US, towards Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Her feminist drive “began to grow significantly when I started working with the collection a decade ago; I realised what a deficit [of work by women] there was. And then I was in a position to do something about it. I encourage colleagues to dig a little more when they see interesting work by a woman artist they haven’t heard of before, or to be aware of where women have been overlooked. Sonia Delaunay [the subject of a show at Tate Modern last year] is a case in point. For years people had been saying, ‘Let’s do a Sonia Delaunay show,’ but the feeling would be, ‘Oh no, the work isn’t strong enough.’ Well, what on earth did that mean? The work was unbelievably strong and diverse – but nobody actually knew its full extent.’”I don't want to shit all over SFMOMA from a great distance, based on no more information than this single article. In fact, I'm more calling the article out as part of thinking through a current trend in art dialogue. There has been a great deal of attention paid to Hauser Wirth & Schimmel's opening show in their new L.A. mega-gallery, Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947-2016, and a reasonable amount (somewhat less favourable) to the touring exhibition of women artists represented in the Rubell collection, No Man's Land: Women Artists from the Rubell Family Collection.* It has been suggested - I forget by whom, and where - that part of the reason for this rising emphasis on women artists, especially in the context of dealer galleries, is that this is a place where the market has headroom. If only a handful of living women artists (e.g. Cindy Sherman) are commanding the astronomically high prices at auction that their male counterparts achieve, that suggests that there is a place to grow the market by asserting the importance of women artists, both contemporary practitioners and the back-catalogue of older or deceased artists who can be brought under the spotlight.
It feels like a slightly grubby way of achieving equality: capitalism driving diversity. But the article about SFMOMA also feels to me as if it's framed by the market: these are blue-chip artists being name-checked, and their prices are not far distant from their works ("Richter, the world’s most revered (and expensive) living painter."). As part of their expansion drive, the museum went out and made specific asks to local collectors for particular artists' works, or works from a certain period in an artist's career. I can't help but detect as I read the market-driven effects of private patronage on American art museums. The only way to test this against reality, of course, is to visit as soon as possible.
*Coincidentally, but perhaps not surprisingly, the name of a show of women artist's work at The Dowse in either the early 80s or early 90s - I'm not at my desk to check.