The de Young
Are you ready to experience one of the best art museums on the West Coast? The de Young is the most-visited art museum west of the Mississippi for a reason, and Museum Hack’s high-energy renegade tours will show it to you like no one else can!
Founded as a temporary exposition at the California Midwinter Centennial Exposition of 1894, the de Young museum has seen many changes to the city that surrounds it. Once known as “San Francisco’s Attic” because of its zany founder and his ideas about what qualifies as “art,” the de Young still hosts an incredibly eclectic collection, from classic paintings to ancestor skulls and pickle spoons.
The de Young is home to artwork from five centuries of American history, contemporary pieces, European classics, art from the First Nations, and a collection of African and Papua New Guinean art that is unparalleled on the west coast!
Even the building itself is a work of art. The de Young is the largest copper clad building on Earth! The copper is meant to patina over time, and will eventually blend in with the greenery that surrounds it in Golden Gate Park.
Our unconventional tours showcase the best “un-highlighted” pieces the de Young has to offer. We promise to blow your mind with juicy gossip on the art, artifacts, and artists too!
As you’re planning your visit, be sure to scroll down to the FAQ section on this page for info on parking, dining, bag & coat check, etc. We’ve also selected some items which we included below in the “5 Things to See at the de Young” section – this is a great way to get your bearings with a quick virtual tour of sorts!
5 Things to See at the de Young
Since 1921, the de Young building design has included a tower. However, in a classic example of “taking things to the next level,” the current Herzog & de Meuron building that houses the de Young collection, finished in 2005, came equipped with a fancy, 144 ft observation tower.
This is no ordinary tower – it actually makes the de Young look like a battleship sailing through the surrounding greenery. What’s more, that tower is free to enter and open to the public, whether you’re buying a ticket to see the rest of the museum or not!
It’s one of those “hiding in plain sight” secrets of San Francisco. Think of it this way – 13 million people visit Golden Gate Park each year, but only a fraction goes inside the de Young and takes the elevator to the 9th floor to check out the terrific 360-degree panoramic views.
Trust us, you’ll want to be one of them – Don’t forget your camera!
The Wire Sculptures by Ruth Asawa
What’s a 144 ft tall tower without intricate hanging wire sculptures on display? Nothing, which is why the de Young has such a display ready and awaiting your visit.
This is the work of Ruth Asawa, an artist and art teacher who spent most of her life calling San Francisco her home. Because of her Japanese heritage, Asawa was sent to an internment camp as a young child. There, she was nurtured by some of the older women who taught her to weave found objects into DIY tapestries.
When Asawa returned from the camp, she enrolled in teachers college so that she could pass on the generous mentorship that she received. However, Asawa was denied a teaching degree because she wasn’t allowed to complete one of her final classes due to a racist ruling at her college.
Since Asawa couldn’t become a teacher, she decided to follow her first love and become an artist instead. Building upon her childhood weaving skills, she began to use wire in her art because it was reminiscent of the fences she was kept behind at the internment camp.
Asawa later became a teaching artist, raised 5 children on an artist’s salary, and founded a school for the arts here in San Francisco. At long last, she was offered an honorary teaching degree, albeit decades later. Asawa’s style of art is very unique and very personal; rooted in her own life history.
Double Rainbow by Frederic Edwin Church
This painting has a secret that is not widely communicated by the de Young.
Don’t worry – We’re about to spill the beans…
If you look at the sign on the wall beside this painting you will see the standard info: the name of the artist (Frederic Edwin Church), the name of the Painting (Rainy Season in the Tropics), the year it was made (1866) and some stuff about its donation to the FAMSF collection.
What the sign WON’T tell you is this painting has a huge Harry-Potter-style zig-zag rip in it!
The rip occurred because when the 20th century rolled around this style of painting fell out of favor. It was tossed in a barn and forgotten for decades! The de Young art restoration team repaired it so well that the rip is barely noticeable unless someone points it out to you. Well, someone just pointed it out. That someone was us.
HACK: Want to see the rip? It involves a booty drop to the floor on the right-hand side of the painting so the light catches the paint at the right angle to reveal where it tore.
Hovor II by El Anatsui
Forget “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” – It’s just a cheap imitation of the Hovor II by El Anatsui. Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s piece hanging in the de Young looks like something out of Klimt’s “The Kiss” or dried Goldschlager. Even the name, Hovor II, means “Cloth of Value” in Anatsui’s native Ewe language. But NO, it’s actually made entirely of liquor bottle caps, like a college frat’s mantlepiece.
Anatsui is all about collaboration; in fact, art students in his city in Nigeria all help out with the materials and weaving, and then El gets involved at the very end, with the arrangement. This piece literally wouldn’t exist without a massive group effort. Also, someone needs to drink all of the booze to get all these labels, so it’s got to be a party when El calls.
Anatsui calls these “sculptures,” but offers no instructions on how to hang most of his pieces in museums. So the curator, the art handlers, and the art viewers all have a hand in this piece’s presentation. One of the guards at the de Young told us that it used to be hanging upstairs in “Africa,” but it got too heavy and it had to be taken down. (Just like all of those bottles in the song.) You can now find it in the contemporary wing.
Three Gems by James Turrell
Easily missed because it’s tucked into a hidden corner of the sculpture garden, Three Gems is a piece of art that you can walk inside of and be immersed in, thanks to the genius of light artist James Turrell.
The name refers to three major tenants in the practice of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Sangha, and the Dharma. It’s designed to encourage you to find your own inner chill. In this day and age, when the digital world beckons from your pocket at every moment and email + mobile phones mean that there’s no longer such a thing as clocking out at 5 pm, we could all use some chill.
Speaking of 5 pm, that is the perfect time to pop in after a winter day of museum-going, because just after sunset you’ll be treated to an extra special Turrell spectacle inside.
But no matter what time you visit, James Turrell’s skyspaces invite you to be present in a way that is becoming rarer and rarer.