Art by the Bay

It is one of the most evocative city names in the world. Born of the 1840s Gold Rush, which drew fortune-seekers to the city by the bay from around the world, San Francisco went on to spawn two of the most important cultural movements in modern creative endeavour. The 1950s beatnik era ruffled the establishment with its jazz- and free form poetry-infused bohemian lifestyle and made way for the city’s great contribution to youth culture, the hippie generation, which spread its influence around the world and drew many thousands to its epicentre to ‘find’ themselves.

Of course, these heady days are long gone, and in the last two decades a new gold rush has drawn would-be internet entrepreneurs in search of fortune. Sadly, the nouveau riche techies have all but driven out the ‘alternative’ creative community (a huge increase in the cost of living, buildings which once housed galleries and studios gentrified or demolished to make way for apartments) and the battle for the artistic heart and soul of the city seems lost. Nevertheless,  this mythical city still holds much of its magic.

Housed in the grand former San Francisco Main Library at Civic Center, the Asian Art Museum has one of the most extensive collections of Asian and Asian American art in the world, with artefacts from China (considered the best collection outside that country), Korea, Japan, Persia, the Himalayas and Tibet, ranging from ancient statuary to contemporary paintings to video installations. Its collection comprises over 18,000 works, around 2,000 of which are on display at any one time.

A host of deities and devils, a menagerie of elephants, horses, monkeys and camels and crowned and bejewelled thrones and buddhas (including the earliest known example from China) are fashioned in everything from bronze, jade and lacquer to wood, stone and ceramic. The permanent collection is accompanied by changing exhibitions, while the East West Bank Art Terrace is the largest outdoor space in the city to see contemporary art by Asian and Asian-American artists with the bonus of cityscape views.

Near Fisherman’s Wharf, with uninterrupted views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, the Cartoon Art Museum, one of only a few museums of its kind in the United States, traces the history of comic strips, from the weekly California Bears, first published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1893 and considered by some historians to be the first newspaper comic strip, to the counter culture cartoonists of the underground ‘comix’ movement who helped to spread the city’s reputation as the capital of American youth culture, most notably R. Crumb, to present day emerging artists.

Eldon Dedini

The history of film and TV cartoons is also explored through animation ‘cels’ (characters hand-drawn on clear celluloid sheets and placed over painted backgrounds) and clips from movies and TV cartoons from the earliest days of the genre. The work of legendary studios like Hanna-Barbera, Warner Brothers and Walt Disney is represented through some of their most famous creations, from Bugs Bunny, Foghorn Leghorn, Donald Duck and Quick Draw McGraw to Woody Woodpecker, The Jungle Book and Fantasia.

One of San Francisco’s most iconic monuments is Coit Tower. Perched on Telegraph Hill, the 210-foot high Art Deco tower offers superb views over the city and the North Bay. Built in the 1930s, it is Lilian Coit’s bequest to the city to memorialise volunteer firemen who died fighting the city’s five major fires in the days of mainly wooden structures. Its resemblance to a fire hose nozzle is coincidental.

On the ground floor is a series of murals painted by 25 different artists and their assistants depicting scenes of various California occupations and businesses. The project was sponsored as part of the New Deal, a 1930s programme under President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) to provide economic relief. The subjects include Railroad and Shipping, Newsgathering, City Life, Stockbroker, Banking and Law, Department Store, California, Farmer, Meat Industry and California Agricultural Industry.

Victor Arnautoff’s ‘City Life’

It is sometimes believed, mistakenly, that the murals are the handiwork of the great Mexican artist Diego Rivera. They are not, although he did tutor some of the artists and is depicted by one of them, Suzanne Scheuer, in the Newsgathering mural.

Together with the Legion of Honor (see later), the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park is part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the largest public arts institution in the city and one of the largest art museums in the United States. Both stand on the land of the Ramaytush Ohlone, the original inhabitants of the San Francisco Peninsula.

De Young Museum during the 2022 exhibition Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs

First opened in 1895 (and rebuilt in the early 2000s after suffering significant earthquake damage), the de Young is home to American art from the 17th century to the present day, African art, Oceanic art and international modern and contemporary art. It ranks in the top ten most visited art museums in the United States and is the most visited in San Francisco.

A visitor admires Faith Ringgold’s ‘The Flag is Bleeding’ (1967) from the American People Series.

Highlights include: a superb modern and contemporary art section, including works by Diebenkorn, Tanguy, de Kooning, Motherwell, Rothko and others; a section called The American Dream and the Great Depression, exploring themes of migration, social agitation, precarious farming conditions and unemployment; indigenous art from pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica and western North America; and fine art photography images by key exponents such as Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, Imogen Cunningham, Diane Arbus and Margaret Bourke-White.

From traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy to 17th to 20th century European and American oil paintings, the International Art Museum of America is home to one of the most diverse art collections in San Francisco, including the largest collections of Chinese paintings in the United States and a fine selection of paintings by European artists, many of whom are in major collections worldwide.

A pair of bronze lions of the Ming Dynasty (1426 AD) guard the antique doorways to the museum, where the works are shown in palazzo-like display rooms. The main focus is on the remarkable Chinese artist H. H. Dorje Chang Buddha III (1951-2022), the only artist to receive the World Peace Prize. Drawing inspiration from Impressionism and traditional Chinese ink wash painting and calligraphy, he was proficient in no fewer than 32 art styles. Many of the Chinese works have marvellous titles such as Everlasting Wondrous Appeal, Strong Wintry Charm Born of a Holy State, Mountain Village with Memories of Mothers and Listening to the Rushing Brook from a Dilapidated Bridge.

Among the many highlights are H. H. Dorje Chang Buddha III’s Majesty, in which every hair on the lion and cubs is created by a single brush stroke in various degrees of thickness and thinness in a painstaking process called Menglong, the van Gogh-inspired Sunflowers, in a style called Thickly Piled Patches of Colour which results in a 3D Impressionism effect, and High-Leg Treasure Horses, also in Menglong, in which variations of dark and light can be seen in every hair.

In its white limestone and marble Beaux-Arts building, with stunning views of Downtown San Francisco, the Pacific Ocean and the Marin headlands, the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park showcases European painting, sculpture and decorative arts, ancient art, graphic arts and contemporary art.

Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ in the courtyard of the Legion of Honor

Various galleries are dedicated to a particular style or era, including: the Hall of Antiquities, showing ancient art from Egypt, Greece and Rome; the British Room, with portraits, furniture, silverware and landscapes by the likes of Gainsborough, Reynolds, Constable, Raeburn, Chippendale and Joseph Wright of Derby; Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, a particular delight with examples by Monet, Degas, Manet, Renoir, Vuillard, Cezanne, Seurat, Sisley, Caillebotte and Pissarro; and The Netherlands 1600-1700, represented by masters such as Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Rubens and Jordaens.

The museum’s collection of Rodin sculptures was the first to be formed on the West Coast. Most of the pieces were acquired direct from the artist’s studio and his collaborators, making it one of the few collections anywhere cast during Rodin’s lifetime. Exhibited since its opening in 1924, they include such iconic pieces as The Kiss, The Burghers of Calais and The Thinker. Special exhibitions have included Pastels From the Renaissance to the Present, Last Supper in Pompei: From the Table to the Grave and a showcase of the Chinese couturier Guo Pei.

Directly under the looming Bay Bridge, Pier 24 Photography collects work related to the San Francisco Bay Area. A series of interconnectng rooms shows a wide range of subjects and styles, including: black and white night shots by Awoiska van der Molen exploring shape and texture; evocative exterior and interior shots by Fred Herzog which seem to tell their own stories; people and animals caught in a moment of humour by Austin Leong; eye-poppingly colourful still life mis en scene by Daniel Gordon; images of loneliness and alienation by Tania Franco Short; self-portraits in a variety of staged situations by Chanell Stone; and unique takes on San Francisco streets and topography by John Chiara.

Pier 24 Photography

A photography exhibition of a different kind is only a few minutes away at Red’s Java House, a San Francisco institution which has been serving hearty fare since 1955, where hundreds of nostalgic photographs jostle for wall space.

Red’s Java House

One of San Francisco’s most iconic buildings, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is one of the largest museums of modern and contemporary art in the United States with an outstanding, 30,000-work collection of painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, design and media arts. It hosts over 20 exhibitions a year.

The museum’s collection includes important works by (deep breath) Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock (who had his first museum show there), Richard Dibenkorn, Dorothea Lange, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Francis Bacon, Louise Bourgeois, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Edward Hopper, Diane Arbus and Ansel Adams, among others.

The museum is also the custodian of the contemporary art collection of Doris and Donald Fisher (of The Gap clothing line), which includes some 1,100 works by artists such as Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Gerhard Richter, Richard Serra and Cy Twombly, among many others. It was also one of the first institutions to recognise photography as an art form, with over 30,000 works dating from the advent of the medium to today’s digital images.

Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson’s ‘One-way colour tunnel’

In addition to seven gallery floors, there are some 45,000 square feet of art-filled public space, including an outlook over Downtown San Francisco accompanied by a contemplative soundscape by Susan Phillipsz, a rooftop sculpture garden and the largest ‘living wall’ in the country, bursting with almost 20,000 plants, many of them native to California.

Across the street from SFMOMA, the community-focused Yerba Buena Center for the Arts presents contemporary art, performance and film by centring on artists whose work has a social imperative. The institution is founded on the belief that culture is an essential catalyst for change and that it is the responsibility of arts organisations to spur and support societal movement.

Fort Mason

Overlooking the Bay, Fort Mason has a special place in San Francisco military history. Originating as a coastal defence site during the American Civil War, it became an Army port facility with piers and warehouses and and was a WWII embarkation point for thousands of troops heading for the war in the Pacific. Today, as the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, it is home to a number of galleries.

Fort Mason has been reborn as an arts and culture centre.

Haines Gallery has a regular exhibition programme showcasing established and emerging contemporary artists, the Museo Italo Americano was the first museum in the United States devoted exclusively to Italian and Italian-American art and culture and SF Camerawork promotes new ideas in photography.

Land art

The renowned English ‘land artist’ Andy Goldsworthy has left his mark on San Francisco – literally. Goldsworthy, who uses natural found materials such as twigs, leaves, stones, trees, even snow and ice to create his works, has four installation in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the largest collection of his works on public view in North America.

Spire, his first Presidio installation, is a symbol of the rejuvenation of the surrounding forest. It is constructed from the trunks of dozens of declining cypress trees harvested at the end of their life after growing on the site for over a century. Meticulously fastened together, they form a 15 foot-wide base and taper to 100 feet above the ground, echoing both surrounding trees and Downtown buildings visible in the distance.


In 2020 Spire was scorched by fire, and on hearing the news Goldsworthy commented: “Art doesn’t give up. It is resilient and fights back. It is part of our collective and personal hard-won immunity.” The work is fated to fade into the forest as young trees planted at its base ultimately grow to obscure it.

Nearby, Wood Line is a sinuous, 1,200-foot sculpture of eucalyptus branches running along the forest floor, while in a courtyard behind the former Officers Club is Earth Wall, a six-foot wide sphere constructed of eucalyptus branches embedded in an original adobe wall.

‘Earth Wall’

Finally, in the old stone Powder Magazine is Tree Fall, made from a huge tree branch suspended from the dome roof, both covered with clay from the Presidio, which has dried and cracked into an organic pattern. PLEASE NOTE: Tree Fall is not normally open to the public, but may occasionally be viewed by prior arrangement.

‘Tree fall’

Painted ladies

George Horsfall has the good fortune to live in a work of art. His 1894 home on Alamo Square is one of seven adjacent houses known as the Painted Ladies (George’s is powder blue), which are among San Francisco’s most photographed attractions. Horsefall, a descendant of early immigrants to San Francisco who arrived for the Gold Rush, offers $20 tours of his house on Instagram at @bluepaintedladyhousetour, donating the funds to favourite charities or using them to replace decorative elements which were removed by the previous owners.

Using historic photographs of other Victorians, as houses of this era are known, he identifies original details such as woodwork, wallpapers and lace curtains, which he then gets from specialist suppliers. As a result, his retains the most historic details of the seven houses.