Oakland Museum reopens with open invitation

Kenneth Baker, Chronicle Art Critic

Saturday, May 1, 2010

"Makeover" understates the exhilarating effect achieved by renovation of the Gallery of California Art and the fresh deployment of its contents as the Oakland Museum of California - two-thirds of it, anyway - reopens today after a two-year renovation.

The museum gives its answer - a bracing one - to the question of how a 21st century cultural institution should use its resources.

As if mindful of the appalling decline in California public schools, the Oakland Museum has embraced its role as cultural educator with a surprisingly light, inviting touch.

The Gallery of California Art represents the new model. It arranges artworks on a pattern of intersecting themes. It intersperses them with items from the museum's departments of history and natural sciences, and with interactive features ranging from touch-screens to flat files filled with ephemera available in most museums only to researchers.

The survey does not shy away from puzzling contemporary art - Will Rogan's comic conceptual video, "One Thing I Can Tell You Is You Got to Be Free" (2000) plays just inside the entrance. It offers difficult works as if they have accessible dimensions and straightforward ones as if they have submerged mysteries.

Rather than present a simple chronology of art, the curators have divided the space thematically, with California Land, California People and California Creativity as the wide subject areas.

Within "Land" we find not only landscapes by painters as different as Wayne Thiebaud and Manuel Ocampo, but encased topographical models from the Natural Sciences department that miniaturize great chunks of California terrain. They nearly steal the show.

An adjacent section on the Gold Rush contains an absorbing selection of daguerreotypes. Here we can compare an 1852 daguerreotype of Eliza Johnson with a portrait of her painted six years later by Charles Christian Nahl, and decide for ourselves the comparative advantages of each as a portrait medium.

An adjoining gallery designated "Open Space 1" gets inaugurated with a selection of work and memorabilia of Japanese American Mine Okubo (1912-2001), who found herself confined to an internment camp during World War II, after having assisted renowned muralist Diego Rivera.

California People has a wall full of portraits as its centerpiece - paintings and photographs from every historical corner of the museum collection. Two video screens hang among them, displaying at random self-portraits that visitors have made - and inviting others to add theirs - at an interactive terminal just to the side.

Old-school museum-goers may dismiss this feature and others like it within museum as pandering gimmickry. But it may give people who find it engaging a taste of the difficulty of self-portraiture that they might never have otherwise.

No hard boundaries separate the categories in which artworks have been placed.

Samples from the Dorothea Lange archive of photographs and papers flank the self-portrait area, rather than keeping company with the members of the Group f64, or the pictorialist photographers, whose work has dedicated areas elsewhere on the floor.

The art of Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) occupies a space at the center of the Gallery of California Art, through which small, long-running monographic surveys of individual artists will rotate. Diebenkorn's art makes a perfect compass among the various thematic areas around it, because he ventured with equal confidence into portraiture, landscape and abstraction.

The sight of daylight to one side and at the far end of the Gallery of California Art will be a refreshing surprise to visitors familiar with the museum.

The modest expansion designed by San Francisco architect Mark Cavagnero has opened a long side gallery dedicated to Art of Our Time, and an airy one at the end of the original enfilade given over to contemporary art. Clerestory windows let the light of the present day infuse both spaces.

The thematic installation, with its overlaps and ricochets, may strike some visitors as scrambled. But to the curators' credit, they offer a broadly accessible experience of the uncertainties, surprises and never-ending reappraisals that face all viewers - no matter how sophisticated - who hope to know their position in historical time and cultural space.

Inevitably, in a curatorial juggling act of this complexity, some balls will get dropped - and the jam-packed Gallery of California History adds a whole other layer of challenge to memory and attention. Best to visit the two departments on separate days.

But the Gallery of California Art, light on wall and label text, lets visitors find for themselves connections such as the 1953 Adaline Kent sculpture in the Modernism area and photographer Roger Sturtevant's mid-30s portrait of Kent at work, or the eyeline that links Kent's sculpture with Robert B. Howard's 1950 "Study for 'Custodian,' " so similar to hers in style.

Over an afternoon or over a lifetime of looking at art such connections deepen the pleasure of being alive to one's time. We cannot ask more of a museum than to make that opportunity available.

Oakland Museum of California reopening

11 a.m. Saturday, public welcome ceremony, including Native American Ohlone blessing and premier of a dance work by Project Bandaloop. Expanded and reinstalled art and history galleries will open, as will the new museum store and new restaurant, Blue Oak.

Other opening-day entertainers will include yo-yo wizard Dazzling Dave, whistler Sean Lomax and the Oakland Hip-Hop Dance Institute.

Overnight program: 6 p.m. Sat.-6 a.m. Sun., will feature live DJs, a dance music showcase, "California Futures" - ongoing conversations and events about California culture, including food, screenings of California films, plus fire dancers.

Sunday morning will begin with yoga in the garden and coffee, followed - until 6 p.m. Sun. - by family-oriented events including a presentation by bubble-magician Mike Miller, juggling, dance and music performances by Capacitor Dance group, Oakland School for the Arts Jazz Band, the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, A'Dunyae Lee rap, community drumming with Drummm Rhythmic Events and more. Info: (510) 238-2200,

E-mail Kenneth Baker at

This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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