René de Guzman has become something of a folk hero in Oakland. Once a scenester in San Francisco’s gallery scene, he helped launch Southern Exposure and Intersection for the Arts, and later became the visual arts director at Yerba Buena. De Guzman is a funky-art-space guy who graduated to the high-culture museum world but kept his street cred. He used to make installations out of scavenged materials, and once painted a large canvas with his own blood. He spent years transforming the Bay Area arts scene, curating exhibits on hip-hop and skateboard culture, and always bringing in something a little cooler, smarter, and more forward-thinking than we’d seen before. He’s the kind of person who could justifiably use “remix” as a verb, even though such slang is not part of his vocabulary. Now he’s helped remix the galleries at Oakland Museum of California.
Over the past year, de Guzman has been part of a huge project to tear down the old walls at the museum and completely renovate the inside. Now, the place looks cleaner and roomier. It’s got new lighting, new data lines, and new electricity. Gone are the old concrete walls and archaic hanging systems. “One of the key ideas of this whole renovation is to create a situation where we can change things out in a much easier way,” de Guzman said.
The idea of transformable galleries is integral to the Oakland Museum’s new way of conceiving itself. Only a small percentage of the collection is viewable at any point in time. The rest is stored in a giant warehouse and archived on a database. Part of de Guzman’s job is to pore through these archives on a regular basis. Other museum curators also took stock of the collection during their eight-month renovation period. Senior history curator Louise Pubols excavated a splashy 1913 Cadillac and used it to tell the story of opulence and mobility in Southern California. “This really gave us a chance to evaluate the collection and bring out things that people hadn’t seen before,” she said. “Or to bring out things that had been here before, but nobody really noticed.”
Renovation plans were in the works as early as 1999, said Lori Fogarty, who previously worked at worked at SFMOMA and the Bay Area Discovery Museum and took her post as the museum’s executive director in 2006. “The board of the Oakland Museum of California foundation did a master plan in 1999,” she said. At that point, it was more of an architectural project. Built in 1969, the museum had never undergone any major enhancement up to that point. Fogarty arrived right before the passage of Oakland bond Measure G, which provided enough seed money for the project. By that time, it was about much more than aesthetics, new floor plans, and earthquake safety. Staffers wanted to get more high-concept. They wanted to rethink the museum’s role as both an institution and a public space.
“When I came in, I just saw this enormous opportunity to rethink what the museum was doing, and to reinstall 90,000 square feet of gallery space,” Fogarty said. “Just our collection galleries are almost twice the size of the gallery space of SFMOMA,” she said. Fogarty hired four new curators — including Pubols and de Guzman — to work with a team of veterans. She also recruited new planners and designers. Together, they found ways to make the various zones more permeable, pliable, and accessible to visitors. They worked with a model that was less about stanchions and Plexiglass, and more about participation. That’s a far cry from the stodgy, traditional museum, with its velvet ropes, big wall placards, and security guards leering in the corner. “It’s like going into this totalitarian state where you can’t do anything except what the museum wants you to do,” said de Guzman. “We’re offering a lot of choice.”
“Choice” is a core tenet at the Oakland Museum, but it’s a hard thing to impose. De Guzman and company spent a long time figuring out how to break down the fourth wall, and turn a pedagogical set-up into a participatory one. The curators filled their galleries with lounge areas and pods, which also function as exhibits — a “Turn of the Century Lounge” designed by local craftsman Tedd Colt serves partly as a hang-out, and partly to teach people about the California Arts and Crafts movement. Similarly, the history gallery has a row of rocks from Monterey Beach that serve as a guard rail, protecting old Spanish artifacts in the Missions section. “We’re giving signals as to how to walk through the gallery,” said Pubols, who walked a fine line between telling the story of California settlement and providing a vicarious experience. She said the biggest challenge was combining real antiquities with artistic representations in a way that didn’t seem deceptive: “We thought very carefully about how people understand what’s real, and what’s not real.”
Perhaps the best symbol of this new school of thought is Art 360, a new rotating exhibit in the art gallery. It currently features a sculpture by Robert Hudson called “Double Time,” made of bright, painted metal with trompe l’oeil patterns. The piece rests on a turntable that spins, so visitors can view it from all angles. Around the table are multiple stations. One has a set of headphones for people to hear Hudson talk about his work. Another has a set of blue Velcro pieces resembling the ones in the sculpture, so participants can try to recreate it themselves. De Guzman hopes to change the exhibit at least once a year. He says it’s the most tactile experience that the museum has to offer. With the current layout, it’s just yards away from a huge wall installation by local graffiti artist Barry McGee (aka Twist), and a set of stones from Zhan Wang, who made replicas of rocks in the Sierra Nevada to represent “the Gold Mountain.” A corner alcove houses the gallery’s new media exhibit, where bars of color flash across a large movie screen, while electronic music zaps in the background. It’s the work of forty-year-old San Francisco animator Kota Ezawa.
It’s a risky time to be doing big, ambitious, new-idea kinds of things, given that the economic downturn affected museums just as much as other institutions. But de Guzman sees this renovation as an extension of the museum’s founding principles. With five entrances and a huge garden in the middle, the place was supposed to represent democratic ideals. “It’s sort of like the auto industry,” said de Guzman. “Do they make electronic cars, or do they just need to make better SUVs?” He said Oakland Museum curators are on the side of Chevrolet Volts and Prius plug-ins. They’re willing to risk it.