Openings Exhibitions Museums USA

San Francisco to get a mini Turbine Hall

City’s Modern art museum is the latest to want a free public space for big works

A large glass-walled gallery on street level will beckon passersby on Howard Street. Photo: courtesy MIR and Snøhetta

Call it the Turbine Hall effect. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) is one of several US museums building free-to-visit ground floor spaces to show large-scale works and site-specific commissions to the broadest possible public.

Like the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern’s 35,000 sq. ft contemporary art venue that has hosted such ambitious and crowd-pleasing commissions as Ólafur Elíasson’s The Weather Project, Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds and Tino Sehgal’s These Associations, the San Francisco museum’s ground-floor space will feature interactive contemporary works that visitors can explore without buying a ticket to the rest of the museum, while 25ft-tall glass walls will make every installation visible to passersby. The inaugural display, Richard Serra’s 67-foot-long sculpture Sequence, 2006, is part of a planned exhibition of the 1,100-work collection of Gap founder Donald Fisher and his wife Doris, which the museum acquired on long-term loan in 2009.

San Francisco is not alone: the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York are both building open-plan, free ground floor spaces as part of high-profile construction projects. Like the San Francisco museum’s planned space, the Museum of Modern Art’s free-admission, glass-walled gallery for contemporary art and performance is due to open directly onto the street.

Although they are stopping short of offering free admission to the entire facility, the trend signals museums’ growing desire to shed their reputation as a space open only to the elite. “The museum’s expansion is, in part, about opening up the museum to its urban surroundings and about deepening our role in city life,” says the San Francisco museum director Neal Benezra.

The Howard Street gallery (to be renamed pending sponsorship or donation) is part of SFMoMA’s $610m overhaul, due to be completed in 2016. (The institution has raised $570m to date.) The renovation stands to give the museum, which has been closed since last year, the largest gallery space devoted to Modern and contemporary art in the US—at least until the Museum of Modern Art in New York opens its expansion in 2019. It also increases the amount of space that is free to the public by a factor of six.

But square-footage is not easy to come by in crowded downtown San Francisco. The Howard Street gallery will be less than one-tenth the size of the cavernous Turbine Hall. And in order to open up the expanded 41,000 sq. ft ground floor, the Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta plans to demolish the museum’s central staircase, which has served as the focal point of Mario Botta’s original 1995 design.

Some are already questioning the wisdom of squeezing 157,000 sq. ft of gallery space into a single city block. “It would be far more coherent, with a better sense of proportion, at about three-fourths (or even two-thirds) the size,” wrote the architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne.

But can these museums be blamed for their lofty ambitions? The Turbine Hall’s star power has never been clearer. Last year, attendance at Tate Modern dropped from 5.3 million to 4.8 million, according to The Art Newspaper’s annual survey, likely due in part to the end of the Unilever series at Turbine Hall and the closure of the Tanks for renovation. Hyundai will sponsor ten more years of commissions beginning autumn 2015.

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