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January 27, 2016

What You Need to Know About the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

Visitors to San Francisco could be forgiven if they didn’t know about the University of California’s former Art Museum in Berkeley. It was located eight blocks uphill from the downtown BART station, beyond even the campus attractions. Besides, “university art museum” might have sounded musty and academic.

That all changes in a stunning way on Jan. 31, 2016 when the new, combined Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive opens. It’s just one block from the BART station and 21 minutes away from downtown San Francisco on the Richmond line. Along with its film theatre, the café called Babette will be open until 9 p.m. Babette projects over the museum’s entrance like the prow of a ship and its ceiling-height windows add views of Berkeley and the university campus to the menu.

The building was designed by an internationally renowned team of architects who bridge the past and the future, city life and university campus. It’s a bright, airy and wide-open showcase for the inaugural exhibit displaying 3,000 years of art, architecture and design. The first exhibit, “Architecture of Life,” fills every gallery in the new museum, which took a vacant printing plant and added a swooping glass and stainless steel addition. It glides over the rooftop to project above the entrance at Center and Oxford Streets. The architecture may get the first rave reviews. It’s from Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who designed the Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and the High Line in New York. 

“We loved the playfulness of their design, the spirit of it,” said Lawrence Rinder, the museum director. Tall new windows connect the old printing plant to the busy sidewalk. Inside, an open forum steps down to lower galleries. The plant’s original beams and sawtooth-shaped ceiling are retained and highlighted. White plaster, stainless steel and glass panels are punctuated with details painted a color called “Chili Red.” There are views into and out of the fanciful architecture. The museum store and the second-floor café can be explored without paying admission.

At the heart of it all is the museum’s collection of 19,000 works of art, dating from 3000 B.C. to the present. “Architecture of Life,” running through May 29, is drawn from this collection and loans from others. It includes works by Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Leger and Louise Bourgeois. In the Berkeley museum’s wide-ranging spirit, works by architects, scientists, composers and filmmakers add to the experience. There are California Pomo Indian Baskets displayed along with remarkably similar building designs by Buckminster Fuller. Since the permanent collection makes up only about 20 percent of each exhibit, visitors who return to the museum can expect a fresh experience every time they walk in. Twenty exhibits a year are planned to fill the 80,000 square feet of gallery space.

Major shows through 2016 will include “Berkeley Eye,” a 21st century version of the exhibit that opened the museum in 1970, “Buddhist Art from the Roof of the World” and Conceptual Art from the museum’s collection. There’s also a tribute to Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann, whose gift of 45 paintings and $250,000 launched the museum in 1963.

The museum gives visitors the first real downtown base to explore Berkeley. There’s a wooded entrance to the University of California campus just across Addison Street and two museums within three blocks. One is the Berkeley History Center (1931 Center St.), with an exhibit on real and imagined Berkeley art museums and galleries running through April 2. The other is the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life (2016 Allston Way), documenting Jewish life worldwide and in the American West. Two blocks away, on Addison Street between Shattuck Avenue and Milvia Street, performances lure Berkeley residents and visitors alike to the renowned Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Aurora Theatre, California Jazz Conservatory, and Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse with its nightly folk and traditional music.

 “Come for the culture. Stay for the food.” That’s downtown Berkeley’s recent slogan, and the new museum could be the campaign’s mascot. There are 15 cafes and take-out food shops crammed in one block of Center Street across from the entrance. There’s everything from bagels and pizza to Korean American fusion food.

Robert Taylor is a long-time San Francisco resident who has written about Bay Area arts for newspapers, magazines and Fodor’s travel guides.

Photo by BAMPFA

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