With SFMOMA’s American Icons exhibit on display in Aix-en-Provence, France, we spoke with curator Gary Garrels about the museum’s traveling works and expansion plans.
Head of MoMA
Credit: Andria Lo

San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art boldly closed its doors in 2013 to make way for a massive $610 million renovation and expansion. When it reopens next year, San Francisco will have an unprecedented new museum. But what’s a city full of art lovers to do, and where does all that art go in the meantime?

True to the city’s pragmatic nature, SFMOMA decided to go rogue, sending off art to different locations around the Bay Area—and the world—as part of their SFMOMA On the Go program. This month, American Icons: Masterworks from SFMOMA and the Fisher Collection opens at the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence, France, and will run through October 18. The exhibit highlights 14 American painters and sculptors between 1940 and the early 2000s, including works by Ellsworth Kelly, Chuck Close, Andy Warhol, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, and Alexander Calder.

We caught up with the curator, Gary Garrels, also the SFMOMA senior curator of painting and sculpture, to hear about the new exhibit and what to expect when SFMOMA reopens.

What exactly is SFMOMA On the Go?

About two years ago, SFMOMA began a major building expansion that required us to close our galleries. Rather than put our collection into storage and “go dark,” we decided to partner with a variety of institutions to keep the art on view as much as possible. Some of our partners have been close to home, like the Museum of African Diaspora, and others farther abroad, but in both cases it’s been a way to re-envision ourselves as a museum without walls.

Tell us about American Icons, which just opened at the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence.

When the opportunity to partner with the Musée Granet came up, it seemed like a great opportunity not only to showcase the works in France, but also to present them in a city that attracts a highly diverse and culturally sophisticated tourist population in the summer. And Aix is, of course, Paul Cézanne’s birthplace and was his home for many years, including at the end of his life when he painted some of his most important works. So there’s a natural connection to the history of modern painting there, and it has been a pilgrimage site for artists for more than a century.

Was transporting 50 priceless works of art as much of a logistical challenge as one would imagine?

Yes, from a logistical standpoint, there were certainly some challenges along the way. The streets in Aix, for example, are far too narrow for the large freight trucks we typically use. So we had to deliver the artworks on smaller trucks across more shipments. And the largest paintings in the exhibition, which are both about 108 inches tall—Roy Lichtenstein’s Figures with Sunset (1978) and Brice Marden’s Cold Mountain (1989-91)—just barely fit through the front door.

Even though SFMOMA won’t re-open until next spring, give us a hint of what we can expect once the renovation is complete.

An entirely new 10-story addition designed by Oslo-based Snohetta that will enable us to showcase the Fisher Collection, one of the foremost collections of modern and contemporary art. Also, the Pritzker Center for Photography, the largest space devoted to photography at any art museum in the U.S.; an exceptional gallery space for our permanent collection, media arts, and architecture and design departments.

We will also have a new, free-to-the-public area featuring major artworks like Richard Serra’s monumental Sequence, and admission for all visitors 18 and under will be free—to help us cultivate the next generation of art lovers.

Jenna Scatena is on the San Francisco Bay Area beat for Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.