PRINT December 1964

The New Oakland Museum’s Policies

IN THE NEW OAKLAND MUSEUM BUILDING, which will house the Oakland Art Museum, Natural Science Museum, History Museum and other related facilities, the Oakland Art Museum will attempt to realize much of the new sense of rediscovery in older American art and to relate it to the current explorations in contemporary American art.

Specifically, in its permanent collection, the museum will present the art of California from the earliest European contacts to the present day. The early dedication of the art museum to such a goal, which began in 1954 with the organization of our Archives of California art, has been adopted by the other two museums, which will also present California material in their fields.

While the revival of interest in earlier American art has finally begun to be reflected in museums—on the Coast, most notably in the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, whose new director, Thomas Leavitt, is an able scholar in the field—a continuing presentation of the art of California alone has never been attempted.

It has not proved to be an easy task. If American art was long the step-child of European Art, the art of California and the West Coast has been a step-child to American art. In fact, even the best of the new histories of American art infrequently cross the Mississippi and very seldom cross the Rockies. A staggering job of basic research had to be undertaken; fortunately other institutions and scholars have been most cooperative. The works of art themselves had to be—often still must be—located. While our Oakland Museums Association and private collectors have responded encouragingly, the ultimate success of this collection has depended largely on another kind of source.

The collection is the happy result of what might be called an ecumenical movement among Bay Area museums. In choosing this field as our specialty, we did so partly because we felt one more museum similar to those already existing in the Bay Area would be of dubious public service. These same museums often had miscellaneous collections of California art which were not being used; they have now lent or given most of this material to add to that which we have assembled ourselves. Thus, the California collection—a sort of “state” gallery of art—has become a joint undertaking of institutions from the entire Bay Area.

Developing an accurate and illuminating history of art in California upon which to base our presentation turned out to be an especially difficult but rewarding challenge. In spite of the rapidity of the appearance of new art forms and changes in taste, art history turns out to be surprisingly conservative, almost Mandarin, and resistant to changes of basic outlook. Only recently have scholars—Oliver Larkin, Thomas Flexner, Edgar Price Richardson and Alfred Frankenstein most notably—begun the difficult task of retraining us to see American art through American eyes. If we succeed in our presentation, visitors to the new Oakland museum will see a very different art, involving new concepts, unfamiliar artists and a changed sensibility, in place of the Europeanisms for so long super-imposed on it.

The material we will present as the earliest of this art is a case in point. It consists of the illustrations and topographical drawings relating to the exploratory expeditions to California from the time of Sir Francis Drake to the United States Railroad surveys of 1853–1857. In these, one can see the pictorial image of California change from a medieval to our 18th-century rationalist point of view. America is in many ways the result of a sense of “manifest destiny” which begins with Prince Henry the Navigator and reaches one culmination in the admittance of California to the Union. This topographical art is the art of manifest destiny, and hence much closer to the core and essence of what is truly American than, say, the portraits of Copley and Stuart. Admittedly, much of it is of minor esthetic quality; the finest of these artists, John James Audubon, for example, had only marginal contacts with California. And yet these works are truly as significant esthetically as many of the minor religious paintings which our Europeanized point of view has led us to accept unquestioningly as art.

The landscape painters who flourished in abundance in California from the 1860s to World War I provide the first long, major sequence of development in California art history. In fact, there is little question that their accomplishment remained unrivaled until the present era. After tentative beginnings in topographical and journalistic illustration and in a transplanted Hudson River style, the grandiloquent landscape of America at mid-century often had a California subject. The work of Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill and the early William Keith are this kind of thing, seldom surpassed. The first major change of sensibility to occur within a California context is Keith’s change from dramatic to painterly romantic landscapes in the early eighties. While this change was prompted by European examples and teaching, it nevertheless brought a sense of development and evolution rather than of mere change, to the California art scene. During the same time, Edwin Deakin applied the English “picturesque” style to depicting the missions and Chinatown, thereby, incidentally, helping to identify and preserve what are now two of California’s most popular historic attractions.

A second major change of sensibility occurred with the emergence of what can be called a “decorative style” drawing from the innovations of Whistler and L’Art Noveau. Arthur Matthews, Francis McComas and Xavier Martinez are hardly known at all today, and yet their esthetic accomplishment is fully as great as the much better known architect of the same period, Bernard Maybeck.

Though the Impressionists of the late teens and twenties were more academic, a small group of Fauvist post-Impressionists produced works in the twenties which were of great vitality. Social realism in the thirties found its style in the example of the Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera. California did much to establish the Mexican flavor of American art in the depression years.

The emergence of Abstract Expressionism after World War II in San Francisco is documented by the museum’s remarkably early examples of the work of John Hultberg, Hassel Smith, Sam Francis and others. The Oakland Art Museum played the major museum role in the presentation of the New Figurative painting which began to flourish in the mid-fifties, and has probably the best museum collection of the work of David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff and others working in this style.

The acres of terrace and gardens in the new building will provide a setting for outdoor display of sculpture unique in this country.

California crafts, prints, and photography are being studied and collected also. Though still small, the craft collection is rivaled only by the California State Fair’s purchase award collection.

Temporary exhibitions will cover a wider field than the collections. As a municipal institution, the museum hopes to be able to show work in all media by significant local artists and groups. We will also emphasize California art in exhibitions organized by the museum staff which require scholarly research and special preparations. Beyond that, it is our hope to show loan exhibitions of great importance periodically.

The museum is also planning a major innovation in museum presentation: an “art observatory” which will use an unobtrusive system of mechanized screens to show original paintings to a seated audience of about forty people, thus making possible comparison with color slides of related paintings.

Paul Mills is the curator of the new Oakland Art Museum.