From the glass-walled observation gallery of the de Young Museum’s 144-foot tower, raised like a periscope nine stories above the lushly camouflaged sand dunes of Golden Gate Park, the view of San Francisco is panoramic and otherworldly. To the east, downtown skyscrapers peek out from the far edge of a rumpled quilt of neighborhoods with poetic names—Pacific Heights, Cow Hollow, the Tenderloin, Russian Hill, the Castro. To the north, the Golden Gate Bridge’s red suspension towers peer over the bluffs of the Presidio, and beyond, the gentle hills of the Marin headlands stretch westward to meet the hazy blue of the Pacific Ocean.
The de Young’s lofty platform serves as an appropriate launch pad for my three-day swing through San Francisco’s rollicking landscape of venerable art museums, high-gloss galleries and alternative art spaces. Less flashy than LA and more well-heeled than Seattle, San Francisco is the West Coast’s oldest art center, the birthplace of Isadora Duncan and Ansel Adams, of the Bay Area Figurative painters and photorealism, of revolutionary movements in ceramic art and robot performance art—a city of stubborn innovators that is continuously reinventing itself.
SoMa is a teeming agora of museums and cultural venues.
The de Young is the newest emblem of the city’s artistic regeneration. Back on the museum’s ground level, I watch kids scamper through the front courtyard, where a fissure zigzags through paving stones and cleaves several scattered hunks of rock. No, it’s not the remnant of an earthquake; it’s British artist Andy Goldsworthy’s Drawn Stone , a tongue-in-cheek nod to the 1989 Loma Prieta temblor that nearly toppled the museum’s previous home. San Francisco’s oldest major museum, founded in 1895, the de Young occupied a Spanish Plateresque-style building near the center of Golden Gate Park from 1919 until 2005, when museum leaders hired celebrity Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron to replace it with a copper-clad behemoth of sui generis modern design—a monumental sculpture (which will eventually turn verdigris) studded with gardens and site-commissioned artworks by international greats. Since its opening, the $200 million building has become a destination unto itself—and an apt symbol of a city that courts the future even as it preserves its past.
As for San Francisco’s artistic present, it seems immersed in a continuous state of exhilarating upheaval. Nowhere is that tumult more palpable than in the Mission District, a low-rise, culturally diverse stretch of neighborhoods occupying several square miles southwest of downtown. Walking west down 24th St from its intersection with Bryant Street, I go hunting for upstart storefront galleries, where tomorrow’s artistic legends will cut their teeth. This recently colonized node of the Mission is anchored by Galería de la Raza, which has shown work by contemporary Latino artists for 37 years. “You’ll see a lot of Latino-owned beauty shops, taquerías and hardware stores around here,” explains gallery manager Raquel de Anda, a young woman sporting thick-framed, nerdily hip glasses, “but the shop owners can’t afford to live here anymore.” True, the once primarily Hispanic area is booming and diversifying, for better or for worse. I pop my head into Sugarlump, a café outfitted with vintage midcentury furniture, but at de Anda’s recommendation I lunch at El Metate, a Zagat-rated burrito joint that serves deliciously flaky fish tacos and homemade tortilla chips. Business is so brisk that the owner is expanding into an adjacent space.
Sunset magazine is building one of its annual “idea” houses, a three-story luxury model home complete with lap pool, catty-corner from the newly opened Eleanor Harwood Gallery on 1295 Alabama St, a few long blocks from Galería de la Raza. On the gallery walls hang Spencer Mack’s digitally manipulated photos depicting cars and trains on the brink—and in the aftermath—of collisions. Harwood, the gallery’s owner, it turns out, used to curate shows at the Backroom Gallery in Adobe Books, a favorite hangout of artists in the Mission School, a Bay Area art movement that emerged only a few years ago. The Mission School’s lowbrow, bohemian aesthetic has found expression in graffiti murals, recycled-object sculptures, scrawled drawings and other works executed in a so-called urban rustic style. One of its best-known exemplars, Chris Johanson, relocated to Portland a few years ago, creating a stir. Evidently, Harwood is over it. “We’ve kind of gone through the Mission School thing,” she says. “There’s been a shift to a more intellectual, professional, written-about art scene.”
Or not. Adobe Books and its milieu near 16th St & Mission—including Johanson’s trendsetting gallery, Jack Hanley, and the Lab, a nonprofit art and performance space sited in an old labor hall—crouch among convenience stores, pawn shops, ritzy boutiques, expensive restaurants and bars where locals clamor until the wee hours. Today the Backroom Gallery is locked, but Johanson and his wife, Jo Jackson, also an artist, happen to be in the bookstore. “We got commissioned to do an installation at a hotel,” Jackson says. “It’s kind of like a library. I’m shopping for books. Chris is going to build a shelf.”