Best Art Museums in San Francisco

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San Francisco is easily identifiable for its Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz Island, Chinatown and cable cars among other landmarks. However, the City by the Bay is also recognized for its racial and cultural diversity. Its best art museums are no exception. From masterworks to multimedia, San Francisco’s art museums have some of the most exceptional art collections in the world.

Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museum houses an impressive collection of 4,000 years of ancient and European art. Its Beaux-arts building was completed in 1924, and its museum doors opened to the public on Armistice Day of that same year. In accordance with the wishes of the donors, Alma de Bretteville-Spreckels and her sugar magnate husband, Adolph B. Spreckels, to “honor the dead while serving the living,” the city of San Francisco dedicated the museum in remembrance of the 3,600 Californian soldiers who died in the First World War on the battlefields of France.

Main attractions: The 1924 Skinner pipe organ with public organ concerts on the weekends; the Book of Gold dedicated to the Gold Star mothers; August Rodin’s Thinker; The Bowles Collection of 18th century English and French porcelain; French Neoclassical interior of Salon Doré from the Hôtel de La Trémoille.

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Located in the Golden Gate Park, deYoung Fine Arts Museum was established in 1895. In 2005, the museum reopened a new modern facility that merged architecture, art and the natural landscape. Currently, the deYoung houses American art from the 17th century through the 20th century in the classifications of textile arts, sculpture, works on paper and the art of Native Americans, Africa, Americas and Oceania.

Main Attractions: After the Hunt by William Michael Harnett (1885); Egyptian Anthropoid Coffin, 4th century – 3rd century B.C.; Mesoamerica feather tunic 8th to 16th century A.D.; Mesoamerica cache ceramic vessel, 3rd century BC to 1st century A.D.

In 1959, Chicago industrialist, Avery Brundage decided to bequeath the first selections of his immense Asian art collection on the provision that the city of San Francisco would construct a new museum to house it. The original building was built in 1917 but was condemned in 1989 after the Loma Prieta Earthquake. The San Francisco’s central library was then converted to make way for the new Asian Art Museum. Located in the heart of San Francisco’s Civic Center district, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco holds one of the most comprehensive Asian art collections in the world.

Main Attractions:  Seated Buddha, 319 to 350 B.C., later Zhao dynasty; Gilded bronze; Ritual vessel in the shape of a rhinoceros, 1100 to 1050 BCE, China, Bronze; Buddhist Deity, Simhavaktra Dakini, 1736 to 1795, Qing Dynasty, China.

Set to re-open in early 2016 after extensive renovations, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1935.  Initially, it was opened on the fourth floor of the War Memorial Veterans building, becoming the first museum on the West Coast dedicated to modern and contemporary art. It has moved locations and expanded on several occasions through the decades. Its latest 3rd Street location will boast a 235,000-square-foot expansion with seven levels, and 142,000-square-feet of indoor and outdoor gallery space. The museum holds more than 29,000 artworks – painting, sculpture, media arts, photography, architecture and design.

Main Attractions: The Nest, Louise Bourgeois, 1994; Westinghouse 1964 New York World’s Fair Pavilion, Eliot Noyes, 1961; Revolving Cabinet, Shiro Kuramata, 1970; Working Class Hero (A Portrait of John Lennon), 2006; Land’s End, Jasper Johns, 1963.

The Bay Area art museums listed are only a sampling of the abundant art that can be discovered in and around San Francisco. From the counterculture of Haight-Asbury to the affluent neighborhoods of Nob Hill and Pacific Heights to the expansive Sunset District, all the way to Menlo Park, visitors to the City by the Bay will find works of art within walking distance.

By Dawn Levesque

Asian Art Museum of San Francisco
deYoung Fine Arts Museum
Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museum
San Francisco Asian Art Museum
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

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