de Young Museum: A Resplendent Quilt Of Our Country

Democracy defines America. The de Young Museum has stood the test of time and has revolutionized San Francisco as an imperial center of American history.

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Like a radiant quilt, our country of the grand United States was originally cultivated by a ravishing variety of cultures, races, religions and all the beauty that lies in between. The refinement that has fostered this country to the power and grace to which we are today is comprised of the acknowledgment that we’re embedded in artistic spheres of: Native Americans, early fathers, the British, Germans, Dutch, French, Scottish, Irish, many more and later even to the Middle-Eastern and Asian Americans. The de Young Museum in San Francisco is an exquisite representation of our statuesque American history, what is now and where to expand in the future. In comparison to other parts of the world, or New York City; there was a time when San Francisco retained in a position close to the reference of a world-class metropolitan but not quite just yet.

“When I first moved to San Francisco thirty-five years ago, I grew frustrated trying to explain to people that ancient art is art.” Renee Dreyfus, curator of ancient art and interpretation at de Young Museum, remembers. “It’s not the same way now, San Francisco has come a long way. We now have teachers who bring in six-year-olds into the museum to appreciate living history. Once you’ve got the kids, then they return with their parents. When they become parents themselves, they bring their own children.”

Originally from New York City, Renee is one of the most celebrated curators of ancient art. She graduated from Boston University with a degree in philosophy. Then went on to Brandeis University to receive masters degree in ancient mediterranean studies and finished her doctorate at UC Berkeley. She speaks several ancient languages and is also the author of the book, de Young: Selected Works.

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“I used to think museum goers in New York are much more sophisticated, but San Francisco has done a lot for its museum goers. With MoMA and the rise of many other smaller museums, they invigorated excellent exhibitions featured here. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (include de Young and California Palace of the Legion of Honor) currently have 120,000 memberships that refer to families, not individuals. So you have to respect the evolvement of the museum culture in this city.”

Today, the Fine Arts Museums is ranked third in the country, following The Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC) and The Museum of Modern Art (NYC).

M.H. de Young was the proprietor and editor of San Francisco Chronicle. In 1893, he attended Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition and had a vision to showcase San Francisco as a great metropolitan. The following year, he organized the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1984, to convey how wonderful it was to live in a city that remains beautiful despite winter. From a great number of items brought to the Exposition, de Young was able to establish a museum called: Memorial Museum of Golden Gate Park, filled with what he called: “curios” – stuffed birds, staged coaches, fire engines…etc.

Today, there’s a wide variety of museums in San Francisco: SF MoMA, The Mexican Museum, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco…etc. The ones leading the pack of almost fifty museums are: de Young and Legion of Honor, the latter founded by Alma Spreckels (wife of sugar magnate Adloph Spreckels,) who was interested in European art since she personally knew artists and collectors who donated to her museum while M.H. de Young took treasures and curios from the Midwinter Fair.

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The two museums officially merged in 1972 as Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Presently, the best of European art are held at Legion of Honor, and the best American, textile, African, Oceania, Americas and best work of art on paper are presented at the de Young.

“This museum has a sense of excitement, adventure, the installations, the Friday night programs…it has more of a family-oriented atmosphere. Legion of Honor is a jewel box. Museum-goers get to see the most beautiful galleries in America, patterned after a French palace that holds the most European pieces in this country.” Renee explains, as an expert who has worked extensively in both museums.

In recent years, de Young has presented different exhibitions almost on a weekly basis, it also showcases an excellent educational program that keeps the museum busy. On Friday nights, it’s open at free of charge. Thousands of dedicated museum goers appreciate music, films, dancing. On Friday nights, de Young has become the place to be in San Francisco.

Walking into the de Young, one can easily sense the new. An avant-garde architecture, built in 2005, is a beauty on its own, created by designers Herzog and de Meuron and architects Fong & Chan. The wide spectrum of temporary expositions range from fashion designer, Jean-Paul Gaulthier to Lucchese (the Egyptian queen who ruled as a King).

The permanent collection at the de Young begins with American art that  features paintings from 17th century going into 21st century. Giant collections of paintings, sculptures, decorative arts and galleries allow visitors to fully understand what life was like during those times. Collections given by Mr. and Mrs. John D Rockefeller III elevated the de Young to one of the most important museums in America, particularly in regards to American art.

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Africa, Oceania and arts from the Americas are equally important at the de Young. Enormous galleries are dedicated to Eastern and Western textiles that cover everything in design, fashion and oriental rugs, pre-Columbian hand-dyed ikats…etc. Western American art and native cultures of America are hugely emphasized as well. Pre-Columbian art and pieces of the Eskimos all deliver the message that the de Young is a vibrant and honest American art museum. It brings eras to life, from fabulous treasures during pre-Columbian to contemporary art from some of the 20th century cultures, to photography collections in the 21st century, such as an exhibition by Trevor Traina.

One would wonder, at what point was the major shift in the evolvement of art appreciation in San Francisco? “You look at the city’s change in population in the last thirty years. We now have metropolitan people who moved to San Francisco with a background of going to museums around the world. But thirty years ago, we held a King Tut exhibition at the beginning of a blockbuster of major exhibitions that brought attention to the museums.” Prior to the King Tut exhibition that Renee refers to, the only other major exhibition that heightened the art museum industry in the Bay Area was a Van Gogh exhibition in the sixties.

As an influential curator and interpretation, Renee educates art and culture. “Once you get people to understand what they’re seeing, then they’re learning. This type of learning is immediate, it just grabs you. You know how when you walk into a gallery, there’s something about it that just grabs you, you can’t really explain why you love it.”

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Unlike staring at slides in a classroom, Renee implies the power of interactive learning. One that becomes a part of you, the moment when you see a piece of art and suddenly it changes you in an impactful way. “So this is what a museum that’s doing its job properly, it really fosters ‘the grand aha!’ All of the sudden, you understand something that you never did before.”

To achieve “the grand aha,” Renee and the team at de Young have implemented: audio tours, dialogue with the artists on the insights of pieces, using updated technologies (iPods, iPads), galleries that touch different senses, things to try on or play with. In addition, de Young also focuses on expanding their audience. Renee has created programs for people with disabilities and a program of museum ambassadors: training high school students from low-income families with art education then ensuring the use of knowledge to teach other children. Many of these children become active in the art industry later in life.

Today, more people visit museums than to all sporting events within a year. “The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco can contain more than three million people a year while The Met with five million people a year, and you add them all up.” Renee says, “This means, more people are realizing that art is more important to them. It amuses them, it teaches them, it enthuses them, it makes them appreciate different cultures that create what they’re seeing. More people recognize museums are learning institutions than ever before.”

In other words, museums are no longer about affluence. Maybe an average person can’t have a Rambrandt on his or her wall, but to think about places that are democratic about museums yet everyone has means to participate in de Young’s programs. Sure, some people can afford magnificent pieces of art in their homes that others can’t possess materialistically. But the rich can’t take away from the fact that museums have enormous riches the public can look at.

Democracy defines America. The de Young Museum has stood the test of time and has revolutionized San Francisco as an imperial center of American history. To inhale the art pieces hung on its historic walls, visitors walk through the test of time, down the memory lane of all resplendent pieces of fabric that have made this country so alluringly great.

For more info, visit de Young Museum

Wendy Hung


As the founder of Jetset Times, Wendy is an avid traveler and fluent in five languages. When she's not traveling, Wendy calls Paris and Taipei home. Her favorite countries so far from her travels have been: Bhutan, Iran, and St. Bart's because they were all so different!

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