With Open Arms – The New Berkeley Art Museum

The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic, Holland Cotter has written about the wonders and possibilities of university museums.   After viewing shows at museums at Yale and Columbia, he stated passionately:

Art and science, equally speculative endeavors, meet, clash and cross-fertilize, just as they do in that world within the world that is the university and as they sometimes do in university art museums, institutions that are, at their best, equal parts classroom, laboratory, entertainment center and spiritual gym where good ideas are worked out and bad ideas are worked off.

That was back in 2009 – but we can see the trend clearly emerging in ambitious new museum constructions at universities lately: Harvard Yale , and MITwhich opened its expanded space back in 2007 without fanfare and shows ‘the hottest research of MIT’s life sciences and technology’.

Now the west coast is getting its turn, California style.*   The University of California Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive’s new building will open in three years’ time. As in all new museums, easy access is the theme – if you can’t come to the museum, the museum will come to you. It is located just off campus within a short walk from the BART station and Berkeley’s main arts district around Shattuck Avenue, with all the quirky Berkeley-ness: the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse,  Berkeley Repertory Theater, and the  Aurora Theater.  

Starting with a minimalist 1939 Art Deco printing plant, the Diller Scofidio+Renfro design team added a 230-seat auditorium for film, with a small stage for performance. I love the second floor café with views of the street and campus. It looks like a trailer lodged on the roof  between the sky- lighted plant and the Deco building itself, overlooking the pedestrianized Center Street entrance. (With over 10,000 people passing each day, openness is the key).

On the opposite side, facing north is a zinc–clad structure extending towards a grassy lawn. It looks like the hull of a squarish ship, anchored to one end of the Deco building and on its stern an outdoor film screen. It feels equal parts drive-in and Deco diner – but in reality the structure contains the new auditorium.

Wow. I can’t wait to see (and feel) all of it.

Here are more details of the building concept.  This includes free art-viewing public space for emerging art, and the director, Lawrence Rinder’s intention to keep some of the graffiti in the original printing plant, a legacy of its squatter-occupied derelict days.


*  The Hammer Museum at UCLA  has of course  been successfully doing this for years. Located just off campus at the busy junction of Wilshire and Westwood Boulevards, it runs a free, rich public program of lectures and conversations, readings and films, concerts and performances in addition to mounting excellent and provocative art exhibitions. It works closely with the university’s English literature and art departments. Its tree-shaded courtyard with a very fine café/restaurant, with free wifi is a favorite local hangout and lunch place.


11/17/2013    – the New York Times reports on a  rush to build art spaces and museums on university campuses. This is not vanity but necessity: universities know that arts and sciences are equal and complementary learning tools.  See also  my post here about Harvard’s concerted efforts to integrate arts and sciences.

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