De Young and the Restless

San Francisco

Left: San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, Dede Wilsey, and Pierre de Meuron. Right: A scene from the midnight Cirque du Soleil performance. (All photos: Thomas John Gibbons Images.)

The new de Young Museum, a smart, sexy, copper-clad edifice by Herzog & de Meuron, has international eyes on an institution that’s historically been more comfortable catering to its local community than to the global entity known as the “art world.” With the exception of conceptually-inflected new photos by Catherine Wagner, the opening exhibitions—an ancient Egypt crowd pleaser, Jasper Johns prints—weren’t designed to engender critical dialogue. It was the building itself, with its metallic façade and twisty, asymmetrical tower, that was thought-provoking. An opening weekend that featured a black-tie gala and thirty-one continuous hours of free admission to the general populace revealed that this is a museum still in the process of getting comfortable in its understatedly glamorous skin.

Both parties—the gala and the thirty-one-hour free-for-all—tested the limits of the building’s allure, and its capacity. The tickets to the black-tie affair, at $250 a pop, were so popular that the museum had to go back to the printers for more (the event was reportedly attended by three thousand people). The throngs were skewed to the local sixty-something opera-and-symphony set and their junior-socialite spawn. As far as I could tell, there were more gentlemen in kilts (an “ironic” gesture toward formal wear) than international jet-setters.

Desperate for a cocktail, I waited in the long lines at the libation stations, overhearing office gossip, finance chat, and one elderly gentleman with an apparently overactive hearing aid who complained that the rather subdued salsa band was “loud enough to be in a stadium.” Full glass of vodka in hand, I squeezed into the darkened main atrium, which was dominated by a large, rather Op art Gerhard Richter photo mural.

I spotted Okwui Enwezor of Documenta 11 fame, who recently assumed the role of dean and vice president of the San Francisco Art Institute. He seemed to be polling responses to the installation of the museum’s collection, which includes crafts, textiles, and artworks from Oceania, Mesoamerica, and Africa as well as American painting and sculpture dating from the eighteenth century to the present. The curators have mixed things up, in many instances installing works from different time periods and locales in the same gallery. Before I could weigh in on this eclecticism, Jacques Herzog sidled past. He seemed a bit prickly. That morning, in an interview in the museum’s swanky auditorium with architecture maven Aaron Betsky (whose silver hair was slicked back in a manner that made him a dead ringer for David Ross, his former boss at SF MoMA), Herzog wasn’t shy about expressing his unorthodox views on how art should be integrated with architecture—essentially hinting that architects should be as active as curators in the installation process. He also expressed his disdain for parties—though, at the gala, he attributed his less-than-vivacious demeanor to health concerns. “Every time I come to America I get the flu—it’s the air conditioning,” he said.

Left: Former mayor Willie Brown with Dede Wilsey. Middle: The new de Young museum. Right: Actor Peter Coyote.

I headed off to find some hors d’oeuvres, passing Ed Ruscha, who was chatting with former Monkee Michael Nesmith. Ruscha is one of the artists commissioned to make new work for the reopened museum, and his contribution—two new panels added to his 1983 painting A Particular Kind of Heaven, which was already in the museum’s collection—was prominently displayed in the main hall. While waiting in another long line for marinated calamari with San Francisco artists Enrique Chagoya and Kara Maria, I spotted Kiki Smith, who’d also contributed a specially-commissioned piece—a sculpture called Near, which hung from the ceiling in the Contemporary Arts and Crafts Gallery. She was wandering around alone in an empty gallery with a piece of fruit. “This is a little too much for me,” she said of the crowds. “I just want to eat my apple.” Meanwhile, Dede Wilsey, the firecracker fundraiser who pretty much made the building happen (and the wicked witch in her stepson Sean’s recent memoir), held court wearing acres of pale green ruffles and an emerald-and-diamond necklace of similar scale that had rival matrons tittering about her need of bodyguards.

The “Midnight Surprise” promised in the invitation turned out to be a Cirque du Soleil troupe performing in front of the Richter piece—two Speedo-clad musclemen in copper body paint engaging in sinuous acrobatics, followed by a shirtless juggler. What would Gerhard think?

I headed back the following evening, post-midnight, to check out the free-admission scene. Despite the hour, the line looked to be a good mile long, but the vibe in the queue was pleasant enough, staving off worries of an Altamont-style melee of crazed art-lovers. There was a range of just plain folk, people still in their formalwear from the previous night, drag queens, drunk teens, art students, night clubbers, and insomniacs. Inside, the lights, which had been elegantly dimmed the night before, were up full, and there were DJs and rituals performed by members of the local Santeria community—not something you often see at art museum fêtes. When I left, at half past two, the line still snaked deep into Golden Gate Park, an auspicious indicator that the de Young had far exceeded the weekend box office projection of forty thousand visitors. Now they just have to keep ‘em coming back.