In years past, a museum visit has often meant an observational stroll, a rich but somewhat passive experience, accompanied by the occasional whisper and the inevitable tired feet.
Not so in the Oakland Museum of California. When it reopens Saturday, after a two-year, $62.2 million renovation, visitors will be encouraged to speak up, discuss, offer feedback on the exhibits, lounge in a leather club chair to ponder a painting or pull up a "pouf" — a portable pillow-chair visitors can pick up and plop down in front of any exhibit — all because the 21st century Oakland museum experience is as much about the observer as the objects on display.
"In a way, the seating has become a metaphor for the gallery," said Rene de Guzman, the museum's senior curator of art, as he reclined in one of the locally made leather seats with a built-in, three-language audio-commentary device, positioned in front of Albert Bierstadt's luminous "Yosemite Valley" painting.
"It's about the human experience," he said. "That was the original mission of the museum, to be a place 'for the people,' for social engagement and public discourse. Not some ivory tower, but comfortable, welcoming, to reflect the notion of being comfortable with art and ideas.
"With that in mind, the renovation has been this great collaborative process," he said. "We've literally gone out and asked people what they want in a museum, and one of the things they said is that they wanted a place to sit down sometimes. So here you go."
And that's just the beginning. To celebrate completion of the first and major phase of the renovation, the museum will open its doors at 11 a.m. May 1 for 31 continuous hours, recognizing California's stature as the 31st state. In addition to live entertainment reflecting all things California, visitors will find redesigned and expanded art and history galleries, new acquisitions, visitor feedback stations, a new gourmet cafe and an expanded gift shop. They will also find what museum officials see as their hallmarks: interactive exhibits where people can record their own oral histories of life in California or even sketch their own self-portraits, which, thanks to state-of-the-art technology, appear on the gallery wall.
Phase two of the project will refurbish the natural science wing, scheduled to reopen in 2012.
A new personality
It's a complete internal makeover for the city-owned museum, and Oakland officials believe it will do wonders for the city's outward image as well, blending with the landscape of local arts and putting Oakland's best foot forward to the rest of the world.
"This is already a world-class museum that's been taken to another level," said Samee Roberts, manager of Oakland's cultural and marketing department. "From an image standpoint for the city, it can only enhance the way Oakland is viewed and experienced by people here and all over the country.
"And the timing is perfect," she said. "Over the course of the last decade, the arts community here has emerged in a whole new light. We've had an explosion of artists and galleries, we have a fire-arts school, a conservatory of music, a school for the arts, ethnic dance troupes, the monthly Art Murmur where people tour galleries.
"There's a statistic that's often thrown around about Oakland having more artists per capita than anywhere but Manhattan," Roberts said. "No one can prove that, but you can really feel the presence of the creative community here. And the addition of the new museum is a very exciting part of that mix."
Funding for the renovation came in part from Measure G, which voters passed in 2002, providing $23.6 million for museum upgrades. The museum also received $2.9 million from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment, $2.5 million from the National Science Foundation and $400,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The rest came primarily from robust private donations, allowing the museum's board to boost the original construction budget from $58 million to $62.2 million, which includes upcoming work on the science wing.
The people's museum
Set on four city blocks near Lake Merritt, the museum originally opened in 1969 with the merger of three existing museums, dating to the early 1900s. They came together with the goal of telling the story of California through history, art and science. Now with nearly 2 million objects in its permanent collection, the museum is considered a leading resource for the research and understanding of California's social, cultural and environmental heritage.
"Picture the late '60s in the Bay Area, the activism, the Free Speech Movement," said Lori Fogarty, the museum's executive director for the past four years. "That's what this museum came out of, that notion of public access and vibrant social discourse."
The building itself, designed by architect Kevin Roche and heralded as revolutionary when it first opened, is a series of horizontal concrete structures, stepping down along the natural slope of the terrain with sculpture and roof gardens designed by landscape architect Dan Kiley. It was planned as an urban park, an integration of indoor and outdoor spaces, welcoming people in from all directions at five entrances.
Forty years later, the museum board considered the building still so solid, seismically sound, spacious and artistically designed that they chose to keep it and refurbish rather than building anew, honoring California's spirit of recycling, Fogarty said.
A new approach
Upon arrival, visitors won't see much difference from the outside other than a gleaming new stainless steel canopy to mark the main Oak Street entry. Other structural changes, designed by San Francisco-based Mark Cavagnero Associates, include the enclosure of two sculpture garden areas to create airy high-ceiling galleries, adding about 5,600 square feet of gallery space.
But the main transformation is conceptual rather than structural, arranging paintings and objects by theme rather than chronologically, providing exhibit labels in Chinese, Spanish and English, and setting up feedback booths for visitor comments.
"We'd heard people coming through, saying things like, 'Oh, I came here in fourth grade, and it's just the same,'" Fogarty said. "We needed to do something about that, making the gallery spaces more flexible for changing exhibits, bring more programming like lectures and poetry readings directly into the galleries."
In the art gallery, works are now arranged to recognize the land, people and creativity of California. Famous works by documentary photographer Dorothea Lange and painter Richard Diebenkorn are flanked by sections on self-taught artists, jewelry, textiles and crafts. There's even a custom Arlen Ness motorcycle on display.
And in the history gallery, the theme is "Coming to California," presenting the immigrant experience from multiple points of view.
"Every story in history has multiple interpretations," said Louise Pubols, chief curator of history. "So we had a conversational kind of process with the community, bringing in other voices — not just curators and researchers. For instance, in the old gallery, we had a section called the California Dream. Now we're also including people who were left out of that dream."
Even the museum cafe, Blue Oak, which won't be in full operation until July with a sit-down section as well as a "grab and go" counter and espresso bar, was designed to complement the California experience with seasonal and locally grown foods, and occasional tastings of California wines. The cafe will be run by award-winning California chef Robert Dorsey.
"The museum is all about this interconnection, even with the food, but mainly the intersection between the three disciplines of art, history and natural science," de Guzman said. "How can you talk about a painting of a landscape without talking about the land itself? And an art piece has historical aspects, about the period in which it was painted.
"Our subject matter is unique," he said. "We're California, one of most amazing subjects to explore. And for the people who come here, many of whom are from this state, it's all about them."
For an audio slide show of the museum, go to ContraCostaTimes.com or InsideBayArea.com.
To see a floor plan and learn more about the museum's approach to curating, the new cafe, and an upcoming program with Pixar studios, turn to today's Arts & Entertainment section.