The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) was the first museum on the West Coast devoted exclusively to 20th-century art. It opened in 1935, showing works by Henri Matisse in a more modest setting. In 1995, the museum moved to its current location in downtown San Francisco near Yerba Buena Gardens and the Yerba Buena Arts Center. The impressive museum, in the LEED Gold-certified building designed by architects Snøhetta and Mario Botta, has five floors of galleries, outdoor sculpture gardens, a 30-foot living wall, and three restaurants.
What You Can See
SFMOMA has about 150,000 square feet of galleries exhibiting a world-class collection of modern and contemporary art. The collections can keep you busy for hours or even multiple visits.
- SFMOMA's Permanent Collection: Creations such as Henri Matisse’s Femme au chapeau (1905), Frida Kahlo’s Frieda and Diego Rivera (1931), Jackson Pollock’s Guardians of the Secret (1943) and Mark Rothko’s No. 14 (1960) are illustrative of the permanent collection of modern and contemporary art.
- The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection: Hundreds of works by a wide range of postwar and contemporary artists are included in what is considered one of the world's most important collections of modern art. It's interactive, too.
- Pritzker Center for Photography: The United States' largest gallery, research, and interpretive space devoted solely to photography is located on most of the third floor. You can explore how photography shapes perceptions of California and create a portrait of yourself.
- Phyllis Wattis Theater: This 278-seat theater features state-of-the-art audio and projection equipment; take in a film, attend a lecture, and see a live performance.
- Living Wall: On the third floor, take a break and breathe in the scent of living plants. The living wall features over 19,000 plants growing on a 30-foot-tall Living Wall designed by Habitat Horticulture. The living wall, the largest in the United States, provides a backdrop for nearby sculptures.
- For Children: If you're taking children to the museum, plan for a busy day. Kids can count the native species on the living plant wall, watch the gentle movement of colorful mobiles by Alexander Calder, and have a kid-friendly meal in the cafe. Kids need tickets, but they are free and available online.
The fine-dining restaurant, In Situ, located on the first floor, was created by Corey Lee, chef-owner of the Michelin three-star restaurant, Benu. Casual-dining Sightglass touts Instagram-worthy coffee creations and desserts and has a second location in the free public space. On the fifth floor, you'll find family-friendly, California-inspired food at Cafe 5.
The SFMOMA Artists Gallery has art for sale. The non-profit gallery represents selected Northern California artists.
At the museum store which features art cards, toys, home decor items, artist-designed jewelry, and books, you'll be wowed by the contemporary designs and find unique ways to show that you are a lover of art. How about an Andy Warhol soup can skateboard! The shop often features special items for visiting exhibits.
To help you navigate the five floors of art:
Use an App: Bring headphones for your phone and be sure it's fully charged. Download the SFMOMA audio app and use it as you stroll the museum. WiFi is free in the museum, and the app is a quick download (or do it before you arrive).
Wired magazine calls the app "crazy smart." It's rigged with location technology that knows where you are in the museum, and it's packed with stories and information about specific pieces of art as well as excellent guided tours. For instance, you'll find out the purpose of those metallic tiles on the floor throughout the museum. If you're visiting with other people, you can go into group mode and everyone will hear the same thing at the same time.
Be Selective: The museum is as mind-bogglingly rich with things to see such as the Louvre or NYC's MoMA. Trying to see it all in one visit would be exhausting—and you'd probably walk more than 8 miles doing it. Spend a little time with their online map and choose a few things you want to see the most.
Plan Ahead: This popular museum can get crowded. If you're coming from out of town or planning for a particular date, buy tickets as far ahead of time as you can.
Selfie Mania: SFMOMA is popular on Instagram for selfies and "Outfit of the Day" shots. Join in the fun, but try not to get so caught up in it that you don't notice the artwork except as a background.
Stop in for Free: If you'd like to visit but want to bypass the entrance fee which can run up to $25, access to the ground floor galleries is free. And anyone aged 18 or under always gets in free and watch for free family days. In 2019, a Free Family Day is offered on June 2.
Save with CityPass: You can save up to 45 percent with San Francisco CityPass. SFMOMA is a participant.
Bag Check It: You'll have to check your umbrellas, backpacks, and large bags so prepare to fit the essentials, including your phone and headset, into your pockets or purse as you view the art.
Getting to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is located in the downtown south of Market area at 151 Third Street. There are entrances at Third Street and off Howard Street. SFMOMA is not far from public transportation stops including BART light rail and Muni bus. There are also some bike racks available.
SFMOMA’s garage on Minna Street is close to the museum’s main entrance on Third Street and offers a 10 percent discount with parking validation.
More Places to See Contemporary Art in California
The di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art in Napa holds one of the world's most significant collections of late-twentieth-century San Francisco Bay Area art, dating from the 1960s to the present. Sacramento's Crocker Art Museum also has an extensive collection of early and contemporary California art. In Los Angeles, try the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown.