Art organizations may be reevaluating their roles during these hard times — insert your favorite tale of woe here — but the Oakland Museum of California (1000 Oak St., 510-238-2200, MuseumCA.org) seems to be weathering the storm. Completing a major renovation and expansion, it is now gearing up to reopen in May with new galleries and refurbished walls that update and refresh the original modernist design. Along with the physical changes comes a refocusing of its mission as a regional general-interest museum. The natural history, history, and art collections, traditionally separated, will be creatively mingled in future exhibitions aimed at telling the California story and bringing together the East Bay’s diverse communities, as well as showing off its treasures in a fresh light, both literally and figuratively.
One of the major players in this rebooting is Senior Curator René de Guzman, formerly curator at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and thus well-versed in hybrid, experimental contemporary visual culture. He also has strong local roots. “I grew up in the East Bay, living in Oakland for a brief time after coming to the US from Manila in 1968,” said de Guzman. “My family settled in Piedmont and my mother ran the recovery room at Summit Medical Center while my father worked as an engineer to start the BART system.” His early art education includes taking summer watercolor classes at California College of Arts and Crafts, watching the anonymous and ever-changing public art installation on the Emeryville mudflats, and visiting the newly opened Oakland Museum as a fourth-grader: “I was mesmerized by the koi pond … how cool it was that a museum had living things in their collection.”
These days, when not on duty upstairs at the museum, de Guzman enjoys decompressing offsite at some of the local art treasures: the Morcom Rose Garden (700 Jean St., Oakland), Mountain View Cemetery (5000 Piedmont Ave., MountainViewCemetery.org) (“amazingly sculptural mausoleums”), and Creative Growth Art Center (355 24th St., Oakland, 510-836-2340, CreativeGrowth.org). Naturally, he is enthusiastic about the Art Murmur (OaklandArtMurmur.com) scene, “the region’s creative engine, “stronger [and] more sophisticated” as time passes, and the talent and energy behind it. Artists, he says, are the canaries in the coal mine of contemporary life: “Their job is to be sensitized to what’s going on now and that’s their role. … They’re breathing the air of the moment. … They’re serving the greater public. Who else has that job?” “Museums,” he concludes, “have to more active in advocating the role that we play. … We have to be more in contact with each other. … We’re going to be a different kind of institution, an institution that’s much more friendly, much more engaged with community.”