REPORT: Berkeley

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It’s been a challenging few years in the Bay Area art world. There’s been the shuttering or scattering of galleries from central locations. The temporary closure (due to construction) of two of the area’s museums, including the anchoring SFMOMA. Artists getting priced out of studio space. And so on. That is all making an extreme about face this year, starting out with an incredible January, which was topped off, on the last day of the month, by the reopening of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) in its new, spectacular home. (Earlier in the month the artist house museum of David Ireland, 500 Capp Street, opened, and the San Francisco Arts Commission introduced its new, much improved gallery location). The excitement around BAMPFA’s new space was palpable leading up to and including the opening, which saw lines around the block. BAMPFA director Lawrence Rinder also noted that the institution surpassed its $105 million capital campaign goal and the opening night gala alone raised around $1 million.

The University Art Museum, as it was first named, opened in 1964 on the UC Berkeley campus under the direction of former MoMA curator Peter Selz (who has remained a fixture on the Bay Area art scene, and whose fresh insights this magazine publishes to this very day). Within six years, it moved off campus to a new space: the bold and well-loved Brutalist-style building designed by Mario Ciampi. However, the Bay Area being the shifty place it is, in 1997, the structure was deemed seismically unsound. The hunt was on for a new home, which was finally decided on in 2010, and BAMPFA closed the doors of the Ciampi building at the end of 2014 to relocate.

BAMPFA’s new space, designed by internationally recognized architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro-who are also responsible for the ICA Boston, the expansion of MOMA, and the recently opened Broad Museum in LA, among other notable structures-is in many ways the opposite of its predecessor. Where the Ciampi was heavy- made of rough, grey concrete slabs, exposed inside and out-the new space is light, with a lot of traditional white, and features clean, smooth lines. Where the interior of the old space had a loud visual voice, the DS+R building stands back; as Rinder points out, the current galleries are intentionally neutral, allowing the artwork to take center stage, and it does. Reduced, but intentionally not gone-an homage to the Ciampi-are the old building’s open sightlines. But where the former museum was so open inside it could be distracting, the current configuration provides both focused moments and the ability to look across spaces. To add icing to the cake, the new museum is also situated in a more easily accessible location, just a block from the Downtown Berkeley BART station.

This new structure was not without unique challenges. First was the melding of old with new: for its relocation, BAMPFA was provided the late-1930s Art Deco-style UC Berkeley printing plant, but the museum required additional space. This was achieved in two ways: a second floor was dug out under the existing structure; and there is an addition, which spills off to one side and looks somewhat like a twisted rectangle. The movement of the biomorphic new construction-which also creates interesting curved spaces inside-plays nicely off of the blocky existing structure, just as the silvery grey of the stainless steel covering the new structure plays off of the white of the printing plant. Architect Charles Renfro points out that he is particularly excited about how nicely the structures mesh, both inside and out; the transition areas are indeed fluid. To temper the coldness of the abundant steel and glass utilized, the interior features custom wood structures designed by master woodworker Paul Discoe, using pine reclaimed from the build site: “The level of craftsmanship is really high,” noted Rinder. Interior accent walls in a deep chili red also add warmth.

The building also succeeds in melding the museum’s two distinct agendas: “We are unique among museums,” Rinder explains, “because BAMPFA encompasses art and film in equal measure,” so the space must do double duty. Because the original museum was built before the film archives were part of the organization, this hadn’t been addressed from a design perspective before (and the two entities have been housed in completely separate spaces since 1999, so this also marks something of a reunion). From the exterior, this is done directly: one side of the museum features large plate-glass windows that look on to an “art wall,” a 60-by-25-foot mural space for which a new work of art will be commissioned every six months (the first piece, titled The World Garden, was created by Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie). On the other side of the building is a 30-foot outdoor LED screen for public screenings (yes, it’s very cool). Inside, in addition to 25,000 square feet of gallery space, BAMPFA houses two state-of-the-art theaters, touted as some of the best places to watch film to be found.

For the first exhibition, Rinder chose, appropriately, to focus on architecture. But he approaches it both from a straightforward sense as well as by looking at architecture as a metaphor. The resulting show, titled “Architecture of Life,” well establishes the museum’s role in being, as Rinder said, “quasi-encyclopedic,” while also being accessible, a driving focus for the museum. “As the doorstep to the university, the museum needs to be welcoming to everyone,” states Rinder. The show features over 250 works spanning 2,000 years. It readily draws well-thought and pleasantly unexpected connections to this broader concept of architecture-in Rinder’s accurate description, “It’s a poetic excursion.” It also nicely blends work by well-known artists-for instance, Georgia O’Keeffe, Chris Johanson, Buckminster Fuller and Hans Hofmann (whose gift of 45 paintings and $250,000 in 1963 is how the museum got its start)- with those lesser known or more obscure, showing the wide breadth of the museum’s curatorial reach as well as its holdings. “Our collection encompasses artwork dating back to 3000 BC as well as new commissioned work; it’s very diverse,” Rinder observes.

The curatorial aim for exhibitions over the next year and into 2017 is to highlight that quasi-encyclopedic diversity, with shows of both historical work and that which is more current. “Berkeley Eye: Perspectives on the Collection,” “Mind over Matter: Conceptual Art from the Collection,” “Repentant Monk: Illusion and Disillusion in the Art of Chen Hongshou,” and “Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta” are a few of the upcoming exhibitions.

About his new space, Rinder enthusiastically notes that “it’s a new instrument for me, and it plays well.” Echoing early expressed sentiments of the museumgoers, he adds, “It feels great.”

Lead Image:
Aerial view from the UC Berkeley Campus of UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2016
Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Photo: Iwan Baan
Courtesy: Diller Scofidio + Renfro; EHDD; and UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific FilmArchive (BAMPFA)