Monday, May 8, 2017

San Jose Museum of Art Review

I was a teen the last time I visited the San Jose Museum of art, and I only remembered the Chihulys hanging in the entryway. Back then I lived in Fremont and only came to San Jose on rare outings. Now I’m a San Jose native. I can walk to the art museum in fifteen minutes, but somehow I never made it over there until my class scheduled a trip. The spring weather was clear, breezy and mild. A perfect morning not to spend in a dim classroom.

It almost made up for missing our trip to the Cinequest festival, which had to be scheduled during my evening class. I still haven’t forgiven everyone for that.

The San Jose Museum of Art is a community effort. In 1969 a group of citizens saved the condemned building (previously a post office and then a library) from being torn down by converting it into a local museum. Their vision crosses the boundaries between different cultures and classes, between science and art, and between the new and the old.

From both the website and the galleries, you can see the focus is modern art pieces that break genres and highlight political and cultural issues. Their mission statement reads, “The Museum fosters awareness of artists’ broad contributions to society and engages audiences with the art of our time and the vitality of the creative process.”

The exhibits change every few months, but on the day I made the trip, the gallery on the first floor was showing “Fragile Waters,” a photography exhibition containing the work of Ansel Adams, Ernest Brooks, and Dorothy Monnelly. Designed to explore the scarcity and pollution of water, the exhibition was put together by Adams’ daughter-in-law Jeanne after an oil rig explosion in 2010.

Instead of descriptions, each photo is accompanied by a relevant quote from one of the photographers or a famous author to give the gallery a more contemplative feel. I spotted lines on water from both Antoine De Saint-Exupery and Robinson Jeffers. 

There are even original glass plate negatives from when Adams was a teen, and a Deardorff camera Adams used to take some of his iconic photos of Yosemite Valley. Seeing this huge bulky camera made me remember how hard it was to get these photos and develop them back in the day. That's part of the journey too.

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Some call Adams' photography "fanciful," but that's not necessarily a bad thing. His photographs look to me the way landscapes look inside my head but never in my photos. He is sharing a vision with the audience, and that's not easy to do.

Upstairs, the meditative gallery, “Your Mind, This Moment” helps visitors slow down enough to really take in what they’re seeing. I had more fun observing my classmates than the displays. Several of my class were fascinated by a spot of light projected on the wall. From my point of view off to the side, they were looking at a half moon. When I moved over to their position I saw that they were looking at a disk of light hovering in front of the wall.

The upstairs also housed “Darkened Mirror: Global Perspectives on Water,” “Beta Space” by Victor Cartagena, and Diana Al Hadid’s “Liquid City.” Everyone in my group seemed most impressed by the last. The giant sculpture felt half desert cathedral, half limestone cave full of stalagmites—echoing both the natural and human worlds.

The basement level always has an educational gallery that connects art to another discipline, such as science or mathematics. Fittingly, I saw a crowd of junior high students investigating the displays. So I only took a quick look around before heading to the gift shop.

It’s hard to recommend the museum because all the displays we saw were temporary, so if I go back later everything might look entirely different. I felt a little gypped when I saw the much more extensive permanent collection on the website. I started wondering, “Did they have some galleries in the back I missed?”

But the location won’t change. I wholeheartedly recommend a visit as part of a trip to downtown San Jose. The gorgeous old building faces the Plaza De Caesar Chavez with its iconic fountains (and in December, the Christmas fair). You can get through the museum in two hours and head across the plaza to Tech Museum afterward—or hang out at one of the many local restaurants or coffee shops. (I recommend Bijan Bakery because they have awesome cakes.)

Admission is $10 for adults, $6 for students, $5 for kids 7-17, and free for kids under six. Getting the student admission is worth it, but the cost isn’t prohibitive even for broke Millennials or families with kids.

Even though the galleries in the San Jose Museum of Art are constantly changing, the museum does have its own distinct identity. By focusing on modern, multicultural, and political art, it feels like the right museum to represent Silicon Valley.

A video of our experience:

Youtube Link:

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