Museum District

I’m a bit of a culture vulture.

When traveling I naturally gravitate towards museums and landmarks, and am loath to pass a monument or historical marker without stopping to read the plaque. San Francisco is riddled with these sorts of things, of course, but in general when I think of them, I think of the Presidio and the Golden Gate Park area, with Civic Center running a fairly distant second, since the Main Library was a bit of a disappointment and I have so far not made it to the Ballet or the Opera or the new Asian Art Museum.

It wasn’t until I began temping, first in the Financial District and them mostly South of Market, that I came to appreciate just how many interesting artistic and cultural hot spots are located in the few square blocks that form downtown SOMA.

In the first years I lived out here I rarely ventured much further West than the Virgin Megastore and the Ross on Fourth Street. During ConFrancisco I discovered the Moscone Center, of course, but in those days Yerba Buena Gardens and the Metreon didn’t even exist, so there was not much to go back for. Sure, Jeffrey’s Toys is cute, but it’s also a little pricey and there are toy and comic stores closer to me. The Hobart Building was unknown to me until Borderlands and Tachyon began sponsoring their charity movie screenings and SFinSF readings at about the same time I began working nearby. Even what is arguably the most famous landmark and most obvious destination for locals in the area, the gorgeous Ferry Building, was only recently reopened in 2003 after its extensive renovation was finally completed. So unless I happened to doze off on the MUNI train and wake up at Embarcadero it was rare to find myself down there, unless I had a job interview or a Greyhound bus to catch.

Then, a couple of years ago I started temping downtown and found myself exploring the surrounding area out of hunger, boredom and curiosity, and ever since then I have been fascinated with how much is packed in down there, especially South of Market at the Museum District.

I’ve already profiled the genre-friendly Cartoon Art Museum in one of my columns, and it’s still going strong with recent exhibits featuring Golden Age artist Creig Fessel, who created covers for Detective Comics during the 1930s, the art of Disney legend Mary Blair, as well as a book signing for David Hajdu’s The Ten Cent Plague, a book about the infamous 1950’s anti-comics crusades.

On just on that one block of Mission that houses the CAM you can also find the Museum of the African Diaspora which is currently hosting the exhibit Africa.Dot.Com about the changing face of communications on the African continent, the California Historical Society, and the GLBT Historical Society.

The largest and most recognizable museum in the area, SFMOMA, is right around the corner and the next block has the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which is set to reopen in June at its shiny new Daniel Libeskind-designed digs, looking like nothing so much as a freshly landed Borg cube, except unaccountably friendlier.

The dominant features in the surrounding landscape are the various buildings of Moscone Center, which surround the Yerba Buena Gardens, home of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the Metreon building which sometimes hosts its own exhibits such as the recent Da Vinci and Titanic shows. But somehow there’s still room and interest enough to sustain the Zeum, aimed at kids and often featuring science- and technology-focused exhibits and events, the Museum of Craft and Folk Art (how can you not love a place that had a ukelele exhibit?) and the Society of California Pioneers.

The Academy of Art is seemingly located all over the place and aside from various gallery spaces which exhibit student paintings you can also catch a glimpse of the work of graduate illustrators on the 500 block of Mission, where the Academy showcases a rotating exhibit in its windows. The surrounding area is filled with all sorts of galleries as well, including the genre-friendly 111 Minna which many years ago hosted the exhibit I most regret missing, titled “Sci-Fi Western,” the nearby Catharine Clarke Gallery which has some interesting upcoming artists like Julie Heffernan and Timothy Cummings, and Varnish Fine Art which used to show episodes of Firefly and featured in my very first event write up of its Nemo Gould exhibit. Varnish is currently holding an multi-artist exhibit celebrating its five year anniversary, which will include Gould as well as other pieces with science fiction, fantastic and surreal overtones by artists like Jennybird Alcantara, Chris Anthony, and Dylan Sisson.

Summertime is always the best time to experience everything the city has to offer. The cafes and restaurants start putting tables out on the sidewalk, the event listings are suddenly full of open studios, art walks, author events like Writers With Drinks and LitQuake, and outdoor movie screenings begin popping up all over the place. But even if all you have is your weekday lunch hour, there are still a thousand wonders within walking distance.

~España Sheriff

SF/SF Issue #64, April 2008