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San Francisco immigration attorney Bruce Fodiman didn't know he was passing into the art world's version of hell this August when he stepped through the entrance of the de Young Museum. He walked into the recent "Birth of Impressionism" exhibit, donned headphones for the audio guide, and found himself inside the equivalent of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
I was "disappointed, and actually somewhat shocked, that the narrator of the audio guide had, at best, a horrible French accent," Fodiman typed in a letter to the museum. "Come on, this is not only an exhibition of a French painting, but it is from a French museum. French is not an exotic language, and it would have been easy to find a narrator with a good voice who also spoke French."
Fodiman isn't the only visitor expressing shock at privations suffered at this city's public exhibitions of fine art. I made a request under state and local public records laws for complaints levied with San Francisco's public museums during the past three months. In response, I received 400 pages of letters, e-mails, and hand-scrawled notes from patrons. Some were happy. But most seemed beside themselves with frustration at inconveniences they might presumably have tolerated at any other spot outside a museum. People griped about excessive crowds, inadequate accommodations for children, screaming children, too many cellphone cameras, guards too hard on people with cellphone cameras, offensive paintings, bland paintings, and even the de Young's website.
A patron named Ryan wrote a July 31 message describing his visit as a surrealist's version of hell. "We had to leave after five minutes of being pushed and body-checked by other patrons like some sort of weird hockey game," he wrote. "Then I opened my phone to view a text and almost immediately some weird little bald man came running over to tell me I had to turn it off because 'it was affecting our art.' Yes, the new app on my magic cellphone has the powers to melt Edgar Degas's works by merely sliding it open."
San Francisco's moneyed elite may have thought they were producing a gift to the city when they financed the reconstruction of the de Young Museum. But judging from the letters, they actually produced a modern gauntlet for pedants. Fodiman is perhaps one of the mildest-mannered of the dozens of unhappy visitors who sent written complaints to the de Young this past summer. In building cultural institutions aimed at luring sensitive art lovers, San Francisco seems to have created a magnet for the thin skinned.
By way of full disclosure, I should reveal that I'm not what one would call a friend of the de Young Museum. Rather, I've been an enemy since 2006, when the museum spent membership dues to lobby against a proposal to close John F. Kennedy Jr. Drive to automobiles on Saturdays. In May 2007, I even wrote an SF Weekly Best Of item urging readers to arm their children with Silly String and set them loose in the de Young's sculpture garden. Despite my animus, I must say that in my frequent visits to the museum I've found the guards courteous, the galleries gorgeous and inspiring, and the bathrooms, cafe, observation tower, gift shop, and every other aspect of the place extraordinarily pleasant.
So why the bitterness from other patrons?
Ever since the old de Young building in Golden Gate Park was replaced in 2005 by an avant-garde structure designed by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, its managers and boosters have sought to position the institution as a world-class cultural destination. This spring and summer, the museum hosted traveling displays on King Tut and the impressionism exhibit from the Musée d'Orsay in Paris — the one that caused so much suffering for Fodiman. It's worth noting that the de Young's re-opening came a decade after the completion of Mario Botta's gorgeous San Francisco Museum of Modern Art building at Mission and Third streets — now itself an internationally famous museum. In aspiring to its status as a world-class art destination, could San Francisco have cursed itself with impossible expectations?
In hopes of better understanding the prickly museum-going set, I called Fodiman. He was only too delighted to have a renewed opportunity to vent. A well-traveled speaker of French and German, Fodiman had expected to find a facsimile of the Musée d'Orsay exhibition he'd visited in Paris. Instead, the plaques next to the paintings didn't even include the works' original French names. The lighting caused a reflective glare. The curators were so ignorant that they failed to include artist Gustave Caillebotte. And the woman voicing the exhibition's audio tour was an abhorrent choice, Fodiman explained.
"There was no accent. The woman doesn't speak French at all. Imagine: It's a French exhibition. From a French museum," he said. "I think I'll call them right now and leave them a really nasty message. It was so annoying. And I know I'm not the only one who has had this criticism."
He indeed has plenty of fellow critics.
Jeff Fanning, from Yorkshire, England, was dismayed to find that a title card at the museum's porcelain exhibition was misspelled. Melanie Cartmell came for the Tut exhibition to find children "screaming, crawling, coughing, and crying everywhere. It was absolutely the worst museum experience I've ever had. I felt like I was at an amusement park." Elizabeth Martin wrote from Southern California to complain that her 5-year-old granddaughter was "trampled and pushed around by rude people." Could she and Cartmell have visited on the same day?