New Museum By The Bay

SAN FRANCISCO'S MELLOW ART SCENE almost gives provincialism a good name. An alternative to New York's grimy infighting and Los Angeles's sunny air-kissing, it's proud of its beatnik assemblages, psychedelic rock posters and the slather-it-on painting school of David Park and Wayne Thiebaud. But its only modern museum was shoehorned into two floors of the Depression-era Memorial Veterans Building. Although the gutsy little museum gave Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock their first museum shows in the 1940s, San Francisco soon found itself of the circuit for major traveling shows needing climate control and tight security. Last week, while another city institution was whomping the Dallas Cowboys, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art opened its huge new $60 million building by Swiss architect Mario Botta.

Although every new museum these days seems to require the prestige of an "international" architect, Botta, 52, offered more than his passport. His thick-walled masonry modernist style -- with just enough eccentric twists -- promised a striking but not fatally trendy structure. Still, Botta was a risk. Known primarily for houses in Europe, the onetime employee of Louis Kahn had built nothing in America. May we have the edifice, please? Botta's new museum is a solid winner. The 225,000-square-foot building squats on a downtown site like an offensive tackle, ready for a charge into the 21st century and-truth be told-against its rival, Los Angeles's Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by the elegant Japanese Arata Isozaki in 1986.

SFMoMA's architectural signature (guaranteed to keep caps and T shirts moving briskly for years) is a rotunda that shoots up through the roof and finishes, like a penney from heaven, in a dramatic bias-cut skylight. Inside, the white cylinder helps orient wandering viewers, returning them to its compass curves, stone staircases and vertical slits always facing west. To the rotunda's sides, theatrics yield to common sense: capacious rectangular galleries and the spiffiest skylighting system this side of Kahn's Kimbell Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas. The building works better on the inside than it looks on the outside. No sane architect would build with brick in seismic San Francisco, so the exterior is just a veneer, and looks it. Then there's a striped lobby (black and gray granite, plaster and light Norwegian birchwood), with the visual overkill of a Bloomingdale's cosmetics counter.

The new museum puts San Francisco right back on the touring-show track, and it solves a couple of other problems, too. Much more of the museum's B-plus collection (including Matisse's famous fauve "Woman With the Hat" and the best of the pre-drip Pollocks, "Guardians of the Secret") is on view. That may help persuade collectors to leave their art in San Francisco. The museum's wealthy board (sprinkled with the folks behind Levi Strauss and The Gap) certainly foresaw the possibilities. It raised the building's entire cost among its members.

Botta's building is the linchpin of San Francisco's Yerba Buena, the most concentrated arts district west of the Hudson River. It sits across the street from the more populist Center for the Arts (currently holding a cornball "The Art of Star Wars" show) and down the block from the Moscone Convention Center. In a few years, a Mexican museum and a Jewish museum will be neighbors. The district is adjacent to ,'multimedia gulch," where hot design firms have gussied up old industrial buildings. The re-energized San Francisco art scene isn't evident just in the brushed steel donors' tags on SFMoMA's gallery walls. The Bay Area practically invented that artist's lab for cutting-edge art, the alternative space. Right now, it has three of the best: the Capp Street Project's trendy raw storefront and the S.F. Artspace, an artists' video and publishing facility, are tucked away in the gulch; the visionary Headlands Center for the Arts, which brings together artists and ecologists, is across the bridge in Sausalito. A new generation of spaces with names like rock bands (Victoria Room, Refusalon) is adding to the mix. And while some, like Capp Street, moved to be near the museum (and its audience), they don't see the SFMoMA as the final arbiter of artistic quality. Capp Street director Linda Blumberg says, "We show first-rate work, not simply emerging art, so we're not merely a feeder to the museum." Still, a glossy new SFMoMA will make the funkier showplaces look even more, well, alternative. Soon, anybody looking over the whole variegated scene will have to admit that San Francisco's a first-rate art city.

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