Oakland's "museum for the people" reopens to the public
Following a $62m renovation, the Oakland Museum of California hopes to renew visitor interest with more space to show its collections and an altered profile
By David D’Arcy. Web only
Published online: 28 April 2010
The Oakland Museum of California, a neo-Babylonian ensemble of concrete structures and lush gardens designed by Kevin Roche and the landscape architect Dan Kiley, opens on 1 May after a $62m renovation. Launched as a “museum for the people” in 1969, the Oakland Museum (its title then) inspired a surge in US museum design and construction in the 1970s.
The museum’s poured-concrete blocks defied the neo-classicism of US museums that Roche called “pompous and repelling”. Roof vegetation that cascaded over its exterior walls was an early foray into green architecture. “In terms of design and environment,” wrote Ada Louise Huxtable in The New York Times in 1968, it “may be one of the most thoroughly revolutionary structures in the world.” Construction costs, with overruns, were around $5m.
Many US museums adopted Oakland’s populist rhetoric. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, director Thomas P.F. Hoving, saw Oakland’s plans in 1967 and hired Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates to design its master plan expansion. Kevin Roche won architecture’s Pritzker Prize in 1982.
The renovation by Mark Cavagnero Associates of San Francisco adds some 5,800 sq. ft. (Roche had proposed renovating his building, which museum chairman Lance Gyorfi said OMCA could not afford. Roche says he hasn’t been consulted since.)
Museum director Lori Fogarty stressed that the renovation is mostly to the infrastructure, yet it encloses previously open courtyards for contemporary works that are too large for the 12-ft-high original walls. Steel canopies, which alter the original profile, now cover OMCA’s main entrance and stairwells, which Roche designed to be open to the air.
“The driving idea behind it all,” Roche said by telephone from his office, was “to create a public space, a place where people would come anyway, regardless of whether they were going to look at objects, a place that would reinforce the idea of community…a public park, where people could mingle and get to know each other.”
OMCA’s populist goals remain the same, said Fogarty, who noted that J. S. Holliday, the director who commissioned Roche was fired in 1969 before the building opened for forming a community advisory board. Opening weekend features 31 hours of continuous free public programmes and events sponsored by department store Target, including a Native American Ohlone blessing by tribal member and artist Linda Yamane, performances by local dance groups, overnight tours, film screenings and talks. “We are moving toward a more participatory museum experience that encourages visitor contributions and feedback,” Fogarty said in a statement.
But the museum’s aspirations never made Oakland the Bilbao of the 1970s. The city hasn’t shed its reputation for crime and economic distress, despite a downtown revival that includes the current renovation. Despite a vast collection of California art and photography, some 100,000 works, OMCA’s annual attendance is a mere 200,000, with a projected post-renovation rise to 300,000. Tourists rarely visit, yet Oakland’s airport funnels armies of them to San Francisco, across the bay.
Scarred by 1960’s racial strife and capital flight, and by “Peace Dividend” defense cuts in the 1990’s which eroded its economy, Oakland (once home to the Black Panther party) lacks the wealthy donors who support San Francisco’s museums. The largest single gift to OMCA’s renovation campaign was $2m, said Fogarty, who said one bright sign is the growth of Oakland’s longstanding community of artists, thanks to high rents in San Francisco.
OMCA hopes its collections will rally a broader public. It now owns the archive of Dorothea Lange, whose Depression-Era photographs are classic 20th-century images. The museum also commissioned a new work by the San Francisco graffitist Barry McGee, whose 2004 stencil Smash the State on the wall of a San Francisco government office, sounds like a salute to Oakland’s past.
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