Fine Arts Museums expand free Saturday entry to all Bay Area residents

Program continues efforts to support, engage community

Herb Robinson’s 1973 photograph “Brother and Sister” is among the works in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” opening Nov. 9 at the deYoung Museum. (Courtesy Herb Robinson/Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Starting Oct. 19, admission to the de Young and Legion of Honor museums will be free on Saturdays to all residents of the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area.

The move comes in the wake of a successful program offering free entry to San Franciscans that began in April, prompting increased attendance. First-time visitors jumped by almost 80 percent, families by 70 percent and low-income patrons by almost 100 percent, according to Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

At a recent media briefing, Campbell said the program is among the organization’s top priorities to “support the communities we serve” and provide “accessibility and engagement in a city of ever-rising costs.”

The free-admission Saturdays, for the first year, are being underwritten by Diane “Dede” Wilsey, chair emerita of FAMSF board (one of three public and private groups governing the museums), and who, during her long tenure as board chair, stirred controversy over finances and management style.

In June, Wilsey was replaced by Jason Moment, by a unanimous vote of the board, said Miriam Newcomer, FAMSF communications director, who added that the organization “will be as transparent as possible” under the new leadership.

Campbell, who recently concluded an “exciting” first year in his job, pointed to ongoing challenges in efforts to sustain scholarship (paid internships are being offered), build audiences and modernize.

Among extreme factors facing the museums are shifting patterns in philanthropy, the “politics of patrimony” (asking “Who owns the past?”) and technology, particularly with how today’s audiences have “global attention deficit disorder.”

At the same time, a focus on modern aesthetics and behavior should not be at the expense of historical concerns, Campbell said.

As the Fine Arts Museums approach their 125th anniversary in 2020, upcoming exhibitions reflect a commitment to engagement and education.

Opening on Nov. 9 at the de Young is “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” which includes more than 150 works by dozens of African-American artists (many tied to the Bay Area) made between 1963 and 1983.

Organized by the Tate Modern in London, the exhibition, said Tim Anglin Burgard, FAMSF American art curator, remains “powerful, provocative and relevant” as it at last recognizes artists who took an oppositional stance and declared self-determination during the civil rights era. Complementary public programs include appearances by some of the artists whose work is in the show.

In 2020, running Feb. 22 through Oct. 25 at the de Young, is “Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI,” curated by Claudia Schmuckli, who said the exhibition of new or commissioned works by 15 artists addresses the question of “What does it mean to be human?” with more nuance and reflection than what’s found in science-fiction and pop culture.

Works by famous feminists also are slated for the de Young next year: “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” runs March 31-July 26, and “Judy Chicago: A Retrospective” — which delves beyond the artist’s iconic “The Dinner Party” – runs May 9- Sept. 5.

At the Legion of Honor, “James Tissot: Fashion & Faith,” a survey of work by the somewhat forgotten 19th century French artist who painted fashionable women and biblical scenes in realist, impressionist and early-modern styles, and whose methods were unconventional, opens this week. It continues through Feb. 9.

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