During San Francisco's first dot-com boom, the Ansel Adams Center, an acclaimed photography space on Fourth Street between Howard and Folsom, had its rent skyrocket, forcing it to shut down in 2001. The current dot-com re-boom, which has paralleled a faltering economy, has had a similar cascading effect: In December, the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, on Yerba Buena Lane, closed its doors after 30 years, putting much of the blame on "sustainability in the current economic climate."
Small San Francisco museums have always been vulnerable to economic upheavals, which is why all eyes are now on the Museum of Craft and Design, a unique space that's reopening Saturday on the edge of the Dogpatch neighborhood, between Mission Bay and the Bayview. If "location, location, location" is a mantra that also applies to museums, then the Museum of Craft and Design is testing the boundaries of what works in San Francisco. Its old location was in high-traffic Union Square. Its new location, Third Street between 22nd and 23rd Streets, gets little foot traffic. The museum hopes to draw 48,000 people a year, which would provide about $300,000 of its $1.2 million budget.
"We're hoping," says co-founder JoAnn Edwards, "to attract people who wouldn't ordinarily go to a museum."
"Craft and design" gives the museum a broad mandate, which includes sculpture, furniture, jewelry, and other art objects made with "design" or "craft" aesthetics. The museum's first exhibit showcases the elaborate metal and wood sculptures of Bay Area artist Michael Cooper. From a life-size tricycle whose base is shaped like a gun to a souped-up mini race car with a lawn chair for a seat, Cooper's sculptures are surreal, mesmerizing objects that inspire the urge to touch them — and to wish the vehicles were really functional. Also showcased: Arline Fisch's elaborate jellyfish made with colorful wire that gives her art a kind of otherworldliness.
Still, it doesn't matter how good the art is if people don't show up. At its Union Square location, on Sutter Street near Powell, the museum had 24,000 visitors in its best year, putting it near the low end compared to other small-to-midsize San Francisco museums. The Cartoon Art Museum, for example, draws 30,000 visitors a year to its space on Mission Street between New Montgomery and Third Street. The Contemporary Jewish Museum — a block away — annually draws 125,000 visitors.
More than 40 museums (and more than 100 galleries) are tucked into San Francisco's 49 square miles, making the city one of the country's densest art destinations. About as many people go to museums in San Francisco as go to San Francisco Giants home games (2.5 million), which is why San Francisco officials want to stem the contraction of city museums. In the past five years, the city's Grants For the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund has given the Museum of Craft and Design almost $100,000. A well-endowed Arkansas foundation, the Windgate Charitable Foundation, has really kept the museum afloat, giving it more than $2.3 million since 2006.
At its new location, Edwards hopes the museum can eventually get so many visitors that it can thrive more on its own. For now, the museum has a five-year lease inside the American Industrial Center complex, though the building's owners say the museum can stay as long as it wants. Its old location became something out of a museum hell: Edwards says they moved in the summer of 2010 after a series of structural problems with the building, including water and bricks that cascaded from the ceiling onto exhibited works. The situation, she says in the museum understatement of the year, "was untenable." Forced to leave at a time when the real estate market was out of control, the museum faced a do-or-die situation.
"The San Francisco real estate market," Edwards says, "is very challenging for a small nonprofit arts institution."
In the months after leaving Union Square, the museum did a series of "pop-up museums" in different San Francisco locations that drew crowds and convinced Edwards that the museum was viable no matter where it was located. Before landing in Dogpatch, Edwards oversaw several deals that were tantalizingly close but never came to fruition, including a lease that would have moved the museum into the Metreon on Mission Street. Museum staffers say the Dogpatch neighborhood, where the museum is next to an indoor-climbing facility that just opened and where other neighbors include the chocolate maker Recchiuti Confectioners, creates a "village" atmosphere where businesses support each other like family. Compared to the museum's Union Square space, the space on Third Street is more flexible, with higher ceilings and movable walls that create more possibilities for exhibits. The museum's sudden departure from Union Square, Edwards says, feels like a blessing.
Once visitors get a taste of artists like Michael Cooper, who has been acclaimed since the 1960s, they will want to return, Edwards says. Whether the Museum of Craft and Design becomes another casualty of changing economic times, or emerges as a formidable institution in an off-the-beaten path neighborhood, is anyone's guess. For now, though, it's wait and see.