S.F. a Manhattan-by-the-Pacific for art

One by one, recent developments on the San Francisco museum scene are truly impressive. Put ’em together, add news of future plans, and it all becomes rather mind-boggling, a per-capita art bonanza no city in the U.S. can match.

It was just 14 years ago that Fumihiko Maki’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts galleries opened downtown, to be flanked two years later by Mario Botta’s bold and sleek S.F. Museum of Modern Art building across Third Street. The MoMA collection moved over from its extremely cramped quarters in the War Memorial Building; some of the vacated space was later taken over by the new Performing Arts Library & Museum, PALM, which is due for renovation between this fall and March 2008.

The same year, 1995, that saw the birth of the new S.F. MoMA also marked the reopening of the glorious George Applegarth-Henri Guillaume California Palace of the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, after a major three-year seismic upgrade rebuilding project.

The other major component of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco is the historic 1895 de Young Museum. It was razed 11 years after being damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta quake; the new, larger building — by Switzerland’s Herzog & de Meuron and San Francisco’s Fong & Chan Architects — opened on Oct. 15, 2005, and has since racked up 2 million visitors.

The old de Young also housed the Asian Art Museum, going back some 35 years. Italian architect Gae Aulenti designed the rebuilding of the old Main Library in the Civic Center to provide a new home for the museum beginning in 2003.

Another former Golden Gate neighbor, the 152-year-old California Academy of Sciences, went to temporary quarters on Howard Street when the complete rebuilding of its old site began in 2003; the new building — by Renzo Piano, in collaboration with Gordon H. Chong & Partners — is scheduled to open late next year.

Next year will also see the debut of the Contemporary Jewish Museum near Yerba Buena Gardens, its unorthodox shape already visible on the construction site. Daniel Libeskind’s “adaptive reuse” of the old Jessie Street Power Substation is dominated by a huge cube resting on a corner.

Next to the Libeskind building is the future home of San Francisco’s Mexican Museum, its collection to move from Fort Mason to Mission and Third streets if and when the project is completed. Ricardo Legorreta, the architect selected for the Mexican Museum, is known for his use of traditional colors and natural light to create “geometric forms that are welcoming yet mysterious.”

Now comes news of the 100,000-square-foot Contemporary Art Museum of the Presidio (more than half of it in gallery space), housing the extraordinary collection of Gap Inc. founder Donald Fisher. Pending permits and detailed plans, this major addition is three to four years in the future — the exact date is uncertain. There are more than 1,000 contemporary objects in the collection, some priceless, including works by Gerhard Richter, Alexander Calder, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Serra and Anselm Kiefer.

Then, of course, thereis the Exploratorium, “the museum of science, art and human perception”; small specialized museums (such as the Cable Car Museum, the Chinese Culture Center, the North Beach Museum, the Museo Italo Americano, the new San Francisco Museum of Craft and Folk Art); and hundreds of art galleries.

The city’s art explosion may have a natural limit when the number of exhibits exceeds the number of residents. Or maybe not.

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