Sarah-Hope had a busy day a couple of weeks ago, flying back and forth to San Diego to pick up her nephew, who was shuttling from one set of grandparents to another. My job was to drop her off at one airport (San Jose) and pick her up at the other (Oakland), which left me to my own devices for a hefty part of the day.
After visits to my old Peet’s store on Lakeshore Ave and to Walden Pond Books, my favorite bookstore in Oakland, and to Creative Framing and Gallery, where I’ll have a show this summer, I decided to visit the newly-renovated Oakland Museum of California.
The Oakland Museum of California (or OMCA, which is much easier to type) was built in the 1960s, a classic cast-concrete box of that era. True, it included hanging gardens and intriguing open spaces, and was often mentioned in architectural literature as a perfect example of its style, but the galleries were previously dark, dreary, and often dead-ended into strange little cul-de-sacs. The exhibits also showed their age, the labels incomplete or damaged, the lighting inadequate, the taxidermed animals a bit tattered. (The museum has three sections: art, history, and natural history.)
Now? It is gorgeous. It is amazing. It is worth spending an entire day visiting. And that’s even without the natural history section, which is still under renovation.
I visited the California History section first, and was met with a stunning variety of Native American baskets, tools, and gear, all clearly labeled, explained, and set in context. This segued into a section on the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors and missionaries, and then into life on the Spanish missions. Each transition made sense, and what used to be those dark cul-de-sacs now contain small interesting asides, such as how artists traveling with the European explorers recorded the people and animals they encountered. Thus the museum leads you through California’s history, with good content, excellent physical materials, and spaces to stop and learn more on one’s own –with real books (and not just monographs from OMCA), and comfortable chairs (appropriate to the period, no less, so the 60s section features bean bag chairs, while the turn of the century has mission-style furnishings): so much more, and more appropriate, than the usual museum computer kiosk that’s merely a nod towards depth.
I was so excited! This was great! And then I was so stressed: I only had two hours on the meter, and time was running out. On to the art galleries.
And again: wow wow wow wow.
They are light. Airy. Open. No more dingy little dead-end alleys, but clear paths between styles, and eras, and subject matter. You can see connections between artists, and their work, and their predecessors, and their successors. And one of the things I liked best was that the extensive and excellent OMCA collection of photography not only had its own area in the galleries, but was also interspersed with other art, again giving context and depth to the experience. And again, reading areas, with books, and comfy chairs, and good light.
So go, go soon, go often. I (almost) wish I still lived in Oakland, just so I could be a regular visitor. You will not be disappointed.
Hip hip hooray, Oakland Museum of California! Well done!