Best little museum that could

Crocker Art Museum

Crocker Art Museum

Crocker Art Museum

Ah, the grade-school field trip. It has fairly universal attributes—note-passing, giggling at inappropriate moments, maybe even a little precocious hand-holding—all the typical whoop and holler of your average day escaping from school. In Sacramento, a grade-school field trip also can mean, more often than not, a journey to the Crocker Art Museum. I am more than a little embarrassed to say that after having moved away from Sacramento so long ago for college, I didn’t go back to the museum until just a few weeks ago.

Part of my reluctance was simple snobbery. I’d been lucky enough to have taken in most of the world’s great museums, and I couldn’t get over the queasy feeling that going back to the Crocker would just be a terrible letdown.

Big mistake on my part. The little-museum-that-could is all grown up now.

As I strolled through the gorgeously preserved Italianate-Gothic house (considered the finest example of its architectural genre in the United States), the thing I found most impressive was how smart and witty the exhibition choices in this 10,000-piece collection are. In part, this has to do with the boyish-faced but authoritative curator Scott Shields, who understands that any collection of any size should endeavor to tell a story—"the story of the history of art,” he says.

Of course, the resources of any museum limit the telling of that story, and Shields and his colleagues have made the most of what they have. In addition to carefully piecing together one of the largest collections of Californian art in the world, dating from statehood to the present day, the museum also has amassed a magnificent collection of master drawings that rivals any one might find in the world’s more renowned—but stuffier—museums.

The Crocker possesses an impressive number of what Shields refers to as “pilgrimage pieces,” art with siren-like, ubiquitous renown, exposure and draw: “Sunday Morning in the Mines,” by Charles Christian Nahl, a chronicler of 19th-century California; or the postcard-popular “Boston Cremes” by Sacramento’s favorite painting son, Wayne Thiebaud.

But a collection—pilgrimage pieces or otherwise—is only as good as the choices behind its display. And that is where the Crocker excels.

For example, on my recent visit, I was totally taken in by the charm of the current exhibition of ceramic sculptures by Tony Natsoulas. The outsized caricatures of 18th-century aristocrats have a pranksterish, Punch-and-Judy quality to them. They are wonderful to look at all by themselves, but the context of their arrangement cleverly underscores their mischievous commentary. These courtly cartoons have been placed around the edges of what was the original ballroom in the Crocker house. The rest of the floor area is bare. At first, it seems like a phenomenal waste of space for a museum that only has enough square-footage to show 5 percent of its collection at any given time. (That will soon change, though, with a new online archive of the whole collection, and a new exhibition building in the works.) But then you notice that these porcelain parodies are choreographed like characters on a stage. They are interacting with each other and you as if you were all at a ballroom dance, jostling for status and attention.

It’s a bold display that serves to heighten the satire of the work. Ultimately, it’s this kind of insight into the museum’s own art on exhibit, and a daring and inventive use of space and resources, that distinguishes the Crocker and ensures its place among world-class museums.

And it’s still a great place for fourth-graders to hold hands.

216 O St., (916)-264-5423.