Light at the museum

SN&R’s early first look at the Crocker Art Museum’s expanded digs reveals a city anew

The new Crocker building.

The new Crocker building.

Photo By Mike Iredale

The new Crocker Art Museum opens on October 10. Find out more at

Crocker Art Museum

216 O St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 808-7000

There’s a room in the new Crocker Art Museum that stops a visitor cold. Actually, there’s more than one room with the same power, and a number of hallways where “wow” is the first reaction.

In this particular room, what’s so arresting isn’t just what’s on exhibit—although the eye is drawn instantly to the burnished-to-its-former-glittery-fiberglass luster, Progress II, the 1976 sculpture by the late Luis Jimenez, which languished at the corner of 16th and K streets for years. The 10-foot-tall mounted vaquero and the glowing red-eyed, longhorn cow he chases are the axis around which the rest of the room radiates. Maybe because it’s showcased, rather than hunkered into a shadowy entryway on a forlorn stretch of Midtown sidewalk, but it’s now much easier to fathom Jimenez’s intent. The sculpture is about prey and predator. Cow and pursuing rider. There’s also an owl and rabbit. Fly and spider. Skull. Spear.

That’s right about when the large vibrant canvases of the high-ceiling, white-walled room start to lure attention—and investigation.

But what really elicits the “whoa” is the realization that this magnificent room, this majorly impressive museum, is located in Sacramento. This is the kind of museum grown-up cities covet, and Sacramento owns it. The emotion this revelation engenders is something far more than simple heart-pounding civic pride. More like dumbstruck with amazement, appreciation and anticipation.

The 125,000-square-foot new Crocker is three times the size of the 1872 Victorian it abuts. It quadruples the museum’s square footage of exhibition space. If the San Francisco de Young Museum can accommodate it, so can the Crocker—and maybe a little more. Through some architectural legerdemain, the giant addition complements rather than overwhelms the historic structure.

Does it rival the Louvre and its 652,000 or so square feet? Or the 1 million piece permanent collection of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum? No. But as recently named museum board member Bob Scarlett says of the new Crocker: “It’s a game changer.”

On any number of levels.

Luis Jimenez&#8217;s <i>Progress II</i> sculpture used to adorn 16th and K streets; it now lures attention at the new Crocker.

Photo By Mike Iredale

Private donors and more than $16 million from the state, city and county have covered $93 million of the project’s $100 million nut. So completing it is a tribute to museum supporters’ tenacity. It also knocks off any chip Sacramento may still shoulder about not being able to get the j-o-b done on civic amenities. Après le musee, le arene.

“It’s a three-dimensional statement, in concrete and in sheer will, that we can accomplish major feats in Sacramento,” said Bill Mueller, chief executive officer of Valley Vision.

“The new Crocker Museum is destined to become the region’s front door. It’s a gateway to our past and it points the way to what we have become—a true center for the arts.”

What amplifies the accomplishment of bringing off the 10-years-in-the-making project is that Sacramento doesn’t have the corporate largesse of San Francisco or Silicon Valley.

While Marcy and Mort Friedman and Joyce Raley Teel account for somewhere north of $20 million of the expansion’s tab and put the bite on many other givers, there are several hundred other contributors who threw in anything from a few bucks to a few million to buy the Crocker enough space to strut is stuff.

“What we wanted to do is create a building that will allow us to better serve our community,” said Lial Jones, the Crocker’s director. “We wanted a structure flexible enough to be a great art museum 125 years from now.”

The new Crocker also ends the decades-old conundrum of convincing the outside world Sacramento is a destination. Not a crossroads.

And not just a destination for out-of-town touristas. A destination for school kids who now have space where they can interact with real art. Studios are available for art students. Aficionados of master drawings will be making pilgrimages.

The Crocker collection awaits placement.

Photo By Mike Iredale

Judge Crocker amassed 1,344 of the pen, ink, chalk or watercolor on paper drawings that can be studies for larger paintings, doodles or finished works. Another 1,200 or so drawings have been added to the collection since then, making it one of the largest repositories of master drawings in the country.

That’s nice, except there was no place to display the drawings in the old structure. And even if there was, protections were insufficient for the light-sensitive drawings. The rule of thumb is three months on the wall, the rest of the year back in a protective drawer. Now the master drawings get their due with their own viewing room and storage facility.

Persons passionate for ceramics will also be stopping by. As will anyone eager to see the evolution of California reflected through its art and artists. Lovers of live music can hear it in the sunny atrium and courtyard.

Opening day is 10/10/10, or October 10, 2010. But on this particular September morning, about a month out, art isn’t hanging on all the museum’s walls. In one room where it is—even the warm wood benches are arranged—there’s a big Klieg light with a fat, foot-tangling electric cord snaking across the room.

Blue masking tape holds 8 1/2-by-11-inch white paper signs in several galleries. Curator Scott Shields has placed them next to various paintings to guide conservators in minor repairs. “Touch up bottom edge of frame” says the sign to the left of Joan Brown’s Flora, its thick powerful swirls of paint a contemporary riff on the second Rembrandt painting of the same name.

Elsewhere, similar white paper signs show where plaques commemorating various givers will be placed. The explanatory blurbs for many pieces lean against the baseboard, waiting to be mounted. Two of the temporary exhibits aren’t yet organized. One exhibit showcasing 125 pieces that will be future gifts to the museum looks like a room in which the owner is still weighing the proper place for each piece of furniture. In the Wayne Thiebaud retrospective, paintings sit on the ground, tilted to the wall, resting on Styrofoam pillows.

Tall, intricately carved memorials created by the Asmat people of southwest New Guinea to honor their recently deceased, called bis poles, add an exclamation point to the atrium, which, as yet, has no furniture.

“It’s incredibly rewarding to see it finally come together on the walls and in the galleries,” Shields said. “There are all these new things people haven’t had a chance to see, and now they can be showcased all together.”

Judge Edwin and the Mrs. would probably swoon if they saw their museum 125 years after it opened. Once revived, they’d simply say “wow,” then demand a VIP tour.