When we think of urban epicenters for art museums, one may immediately think of the bustling streets of New York, stylish avenues of Los Angeles, or debonair blocks of Paris. Despite its overwhelming qualifications, San Francisco’s art scene is oftentimes left off of that list.
This is most likely due to the abundance of other notable landmarks that the city is home to. Visitors often hone in on the grandeur of the Golden Gate Bridge, whimsy of the Painted Ladies, and mystique of Alcatraz Island that our world-renowned art institutions are sadly overlooked.
The Bay Area is incredibly fortunate to have museums that feature nearly every form of art. Whether you prefer modern, fine, or cultural works, we can assure you that there is a place somewhere in our city to let your interests run wild. So, without further ado, allow us to shed a spotlight on our personal picks for the can’t-miss San Francisco art museums.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Location: 151 Third Street, San Francisco
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) is heralded as one of the preeminent institutions for contemporary art not only in the Bay Area, but the world. Following its 2016 expansion by international architecture and design firm Snøhetta, the museum doubled its gallery spaces. SFMoMA became the largest space for modern art in the country.
One of the first impressions that the SFMoMA will make on you is the new wing’s facade. From an architectural point-of-view, this ten-story sliver structure clad in undulating panels of polymer is simply divine. Embedded with particles of sand that allow for it to glisten in the hazy sunshine, this building is evocative of the rippling waters of the adjacent San Francisco Bay.
With sky-high ceilings and galleries that effortlessly flow into one another, you certainly will never feel cramped in this 50,000 square foot space, even on the busiest of days.
One of the most ingenious things that the SFMoMA manages to achieve is the innovative design elements that follow you through every inch of the museum. Even down to the vibrant yet monochromatic restrooms that are on each floor, no detail was left untouched by the Snøhetta team. With seven floors of gallery space, you’ll want to explore every inch to find more whimsical details like this.
The museum is home to unparalleled collections and exhibitions, some of which include interactive media arts, modern cinema, cutting-edge contemporary photography, and avant-garde paintings from renowned artists.
Visiting the SFMoMA ensures that you will come face-to-face with some of the most revered works by artists such as Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Jeff Koons, among many other greats.
de Young Museum
Location: 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco
Founded in 1895, the de Young Museum has endured many changes to the city that surrounds it. However, one thing remains year-after-year and that is the fact that it still stands as the most-visited art museum west of the Mississippi—and rightfully so.
Ranging from classic paintings to ancestor skulls and pickle spoons, the de Young possesses one of the most eclectic art collections on the West Coast. With artwork from five centuries of American history, contemporary pieces, European classics, art from the First Nations, and a collection of African and Papua New Guinean art, visitors are transported throughout the world as they roam the 95,000 square feet of gallery space.
However, possibly one of the most remarkable aspects of the de Young is the way that it effortlessly complements its natural surroundings. Constructed of natural materials such as copper, the museum's facade is actually intended to patina over time and eventually blend in with the Golden Gate Park greenery around it.
While walking through the museum, you will be captivated by the ribbons of windows that wrap the entire building. Seeming to erase the boundary between the interior and exterior spaces, visitors become practically enveloped in the lush natural environment while still remaining in the indoor gallery area.
Ranging from its distinctive art collection to the panoramic views of the entire Bay Area, the de Young positions itself as a tour-de-force in fine art, design, and architectural worlds.
Legion of Honor
Location: 100 34th Avenue, San Francisco
Considered by many as one of the crown jewels of San Francisco’s architectural scene, the Legion of Honor is truly unlike any other museum-going experience.
Located on the headlands above the Golden Gate stands the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. With sweeping, oceanfront views of where the Pacific Ocean spills into the San Francisco Bay, the geographical location of this museum alone is something that all should bear witness to.
Once on the property, you will be met with the palatial, neoclassical structure that is the museum itself. Looking as if it was extracted straight from a French fairytale, Legion of Honor is a treasure that boasts many riches.
The museum's design was inspired by the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris, which is one of the distinguished 18th-century landmarks of France. As a three-quarter scaled adaptation of the Parisian original, the museum melds timeless architectural details with advanced construction techniques.
As you venture inside, you will be exposed to San Francisco's main collection of Eurpoean art. With pieces from artists such as Monet, El Greco, Rodin, Rubens, and Degas, it is utterly magnificent how the Bay Area was able to bring such an important portion of art history to its backyard.
Both the Legion of Honor and the de Young Museum are a part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. This means that admission to one of these museums includes free same-day entry to the other as well.
Museum of the African Diaspora
Location: 685 Mission Street, San Francisco
The Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) plays an integral role in the San Francisco Bay Area arts community. MoAD is incredibly unique in that it is one of the few museums in the world whose content is exclusively centered around the African diaspora.
MoAD frames itself and its initiatives around the question; "When did you discover you were African?". This widespread fact regarding our origins allows the museum to celebrate the universal connection of all people through their association with Africa. Therefore, this museum takes on a very different approach from others, as it is about people and their experiences, rather than artifacts.
MoAD’s mission is to tell the story of the African diaspora through four themes: origin, movement, adaptation, and transformation. This journey of African roots, exploration, innovation, and impact makes for a story-like experience when visiting. Additionally, the work at MoAD is often under-represented in other U.S. museums. Therefore, visitors can be assured that they will have a one-of-a-kind experience.
As it is near the SFMoMA, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the area that MoAD is located in has formed itself as a poignant, cultural corridor for the city of San Francisco.
MoAD overarching goal is to present, and amplify, the stories and experiences of the people of Africa and African descendant cultures from around the world. This makes for an incredibly immersive experience when visiting that is steeped in historical, cultural, and artistic significance for the continent of Africa.
Asian Art Museum
Location: 200 Larkin Street, San Francisco
Another cultural epicenter within the arts world lies in San Francisco, and that is the Asian Art Museum. Boasting over 18,000 objects, it stands as the largest museum in the United States devoted exclusively to the arts of Asia. Perhaps one of the most special aspects of this museum is the story of how those 18,000 pieces came to be:
In 1959, Chicago industrialist Avery Brundage agreed to donate a large portion of his Asian art collection to the city of San Francisco with the condition that they constructed a space to hold it. With a 2.725 million dollar bond issued in 1960, the city began the construction of a new wing within the de Young Museum that would house the collection. As Brundage continued to donate large portions of his collection, ultimately giving over more than 7,700 Asian art objects to the City of San Francisco before his death.
With this vast of a collection paired with the museums desire to display more special institutions, it became evident that the Asian Art Museum was outgrowing its Golden Gate Park Facility. Thus, with the assistance of a generous gift from Silicon Valley entrepreneur Chong-Moon Lee, the Asian Art Museum reopened at its current Civic Center location in March of 2003.
With a myriad of contemporary pieces mixed with historical artifacts, The Asian Art Museum sits as one of the most important art centers in the nation. Therefore, this San Franciscan can not stress enough how you must place this, and my other four recommendations, on the top of your “to-visit” list.
I have studied art history for years, I actually received a college degree in it. Therefore, I humbly consider myself an art aficionado both on paper and at heart. I tend to view all of the things around me with a different eye. Appreciating small architectural details of a building, admiring the abundance of street art that decorates our Bay Area sidewalks, and drawing myself to local art gallery showings around the city.
However, I realize that if you are paying a brief visit to San Francisco, you may not get to do all of those small things. So, if you’re pressed for time and searching for something to do in the city, I highly encourage you to skip out on Fisherman's Wharf (trust me, you’ll thank me later) and instead, set your sights on one of these more culturally-engaging and societally-important attractions.
From one art lover to another, I hope that this guide to some of our larger, but equally important, art institutions influences your next West-coast travel agenda.
Due to my background in the arts, I knew I wanted to incorporate it into my career somehow. When I started Optmira, I was elated about the idea that I got to work exclusively with creative individuals and initiatives. I believe that in order to accurately and effectively brand a company, you must be able to understand it at its core.
So, if you are a creative and looking for some more creatives to join your team and help build your brand, let’s chat about working together!