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Oakland Museum

ae_omcaFreshly Redesigned it is a California Dream
The new director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz, Nina Simon, champions “the participative museum” and promises to make MAH a more interactive place, part of the daily life of the community. For tangible evidence of how exhilarating a “participative museum” can be, visit the redesigned Oakland Museum of California.

The museum has three components:  the recently redesigned California art and California history buildings, and a natural sciences building which reopens in 2012.  Originally dedicated in 1969 as the “museum of the people,” the post-modernist Kevin Roche-architected building was lauded then as an example of innovative museum design. Sprawling over four city blocks in the Lake Merritt side of downtown Oakland, its scored concrete exterior rises forbiddingly above street level, but atop the broad, welcoming staircase the concrete forgets to be fortress-like. Light plays dramatically on the interlocking planes of buildings and staircases and leads the visitor to arbors and gardens, restaurant and inviting tables amid trees and nooks where artworks delight. A huge Viola Frey figure guards the entrance to the art wing.

Oakland Museum claims “the most comprehensive collection of California art and culture in the world.” The art building’s 5,600 square feet of additional space and new attitude brilliantly represent the energy and creativity of California: the dramatic interior leads the viewer ever-deeper into galleries divided by freestanding walls that present ideas arranged thematically, not chronologically. California Land, California People and Creative California are the overarching ideas within which themes like Identity, Living Modern and Radical Acts offer a framework for daring juxtapositions. The Urban theme, for instance, ranges from a 1882 painting of Alameda streets to Manuel Ocampo’s Map of L.A. The idea represented by such intriguing diversity is augmented by peripheral glimpses of adjacent galleries. Nearby, Robert Hudson’s sculpture, Double Time, is surrounded by low desks which offer 3-D glasses to augment the composition of stripes and vivid interlocking shapes, earphones to hear music played in double time and a chance to write and draw, inspired by clever prompts. On the other side, a huge Barry McGee installation makes the connection to graffiti. Isn’t such peripheral stimulus the way that California creates?

The collection of California art of the last 150 years includes a deep representation of Bay Area Figurative art all held together by an extraordinary gallery of works by Richard Diebenkorn, which carry the viewer from figuration to abstraction. The Dorothea Lange archive finds a counterpoint in a collection of f.64 photographers. The Conceptual Art area might well convert the unbelievers.  Throughout, participative exhibits invite visitors to get involved. A temporary Michael McMillan exhibit, Train of Thought, peppered throughout the galleries, weaves another dimension of wild wit into each theme and provides a great reason to visit before Aug. 14.


Maureen Davidson writes about the arts as The Exhibitionist. This column and her radio spot and blog at KUSP.org are funded in part by a grant from the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County.

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