Museums in San Francisco

Museums in San Francisco

  • Jack Ryder
  • 02/9/23

In the two decades that I've lived in San Francisco, we've experienced major contributions to our arts and culture with the opening of several new museums. I have been fortunate enough to attend five of the openings (the de Young Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, SFMOMA (San Francisco Modern Art Museum), and the new Exploratorium) as a close personal friend to two of San Francisco's most generous benefactors.

In 2003, shortly after arriving in San Francisco, Ann Getty introduced me to Nancy Hamon who became like a grandmother to me. I was the same age as her only son Jay when he died around the same time my maternal grandmother, who was from Dallas, died of cancer at 57. Nancy and I got along immediately. She lived in Dallas and San Francisco, and I was with her every year at her famous July 4th party. I was with her at the Legion of Honor when the first 3D architectural rendering for the new de Young Museum was unveiled. I was with her at the opening on October 15, 2005, and it was in the Hamon Tower that she hosted an intimate group of friends for her last party months before she died in 2011.

In San Francisco, in addition to the tower at the de Young, Nancy gave the Indian elephant throne at the Asian Art Museum, the gallery at the Legion of Honor on the lower level that hosts most of the featured traveling exhibitions. She gave the Hellenistic and Roman Art From Cyprus gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and she gave $4 million to Grace Cathedral to have the stained glass cleaned. In total, she gave more than $100 million to build museums, schools, and hospitals. She once quipped that she wanted her last check to bounce. 

When she wasn't in San Francisco taking me to see Dame Edna, a party, or a museum opening, Nancy and I wrote to each other every week for almost eight years. I cherish our correspondence. She was a gifted raconteur and had an incredibly mischievous sense of humor.

Nancy gave a gift that doubled the size of the Dallas Museum of Art, and she arranged a private tour of that and the Nasher Sculpture Center for me when I visited her in Dallas. She gave the recital hall at the Winspear Opera House, the gorilla enclosure at the Dallas Zoo, the Hamon Arts Library, a gallery at the Meadows Museum at SMU, as well as major gifts to UT Southwestern Medical Center, the Dallas Public Library, Booker T. Washington School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and the African American Museum at Fair Park

One of the many wonderful stories she told me about her life was the time in the 1960s, she and her second husband, Jake were hosting a garden party at their Greek Revival mansion in Dallas and a snotty caterer informed Nancy that the band was hungry, but she would not serve them because they were "colored". Nancy fired the caterer, put on the apron, and began serving everyone herself - starting with Louis Armstrong and his band.

Dede Wilsey, who I met through Nancy has made many contributions to San Francisco. One of them was assembling the donors who gave more than $200 million to build the new de Young designed by architects Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron and Fong + Chan, including Nancy's $10+million gift. Dede recently gave the new Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, a wonderful new addition to the San Francisco Civic Center complex. 

Nancy introduced me to Bill Fries (William H. Fries II), who became a close friend, and donated one of the main galleries at the Legion of Honor, the interior garden at the de Young in honor of his parents, the rainforest at the Academy of Sciences, the bridge at the Exploratorium, and even gave $1 million to Grace Cathedral at my request.  Bill also gave the new Snow Leopard enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo and the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert. He generously took me to four of those openings as well as exhibition openings at the museums, like the incredible Cartier exhibit he sponsored. He was a wonderfully interesting man whose grandfather was the President of the Pacific Union Railroad and was on the founding Boards of Wells Fargo and Del Monte. 

Prior to its move to the new wing at SFMOMA, the Fisher Collection was housed at the Gap headquarters on the Embarcadero, and thanks to several friends who worked for Gap, I was able to spend time among the Warhols and Lichtensteins in that collection. Though I am much more of a Fine Arts Museums guy, I love Rothko's paintings and am generally fascinated by art in all forms. SFMOMA is a treat, not only for its massive Serra sculpture. 

Thanks to Nancy, Bill, and Dede I have spent a great deal of time in the wonderful spaces San Francisco offers. I've learned so much because of them. I hope you visit them ALL on a regular basis. Here is the list of my favorites.

de Young Museum * Legion of Honor * California Academy of Sciences * Grace Cathedral * Asian Art Museum * Exploratorium * SFMOMA * San Francisco Zoo * Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology * Japanese Tea Garden * San Francisco Botanical Garden * Cable Car Museum * Conservatory of Flowers


Museums in San Francisco