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The Oakland Museum of California officially reopened on June 18 after a long 15-month hiatus unveiling an extensive $15 million renovation of its outdoor sculpture garden, a new café by acclaimed Oakland chef Tanya Holland, and new artwork by local artists.
OMCA Director and CEO Lori Fogarty said she is eager and excited to welcome people back into this treasured community space, which was originally built in 1969. The updates have been a long time in the works, with planning getting underway five years ago and construction starting in February 2020.
“If there has been a silver lining in this [past year], it’s that we are now opening and unveiling our transformed garden,” Fogarty said. “We’re thrilled now that we’re opening, and we have this incredibly beautiful new outdoor space.”
Famed landscape architect Walter Hood and architect Mark Cavagnero designed the museum’s new landscape, which was installed by general contractor Cahill Contractors. Museum staff said the goal was to create a more inviting community space for casual hangouts and events.
The main garden in the back of the museum, which features expansive views of Oakland and Lake Merritt, had felt largely underutilized. Where there was once a concrete wall facing Lake Merritt, there are now three gates on the 12th Street side that will connect pedestrians walking between the lake and the museum.
Fogarty said the team knew they needed to change something when, during the 2015 Warriors Championship celebration at the Lake Merritt amphitheater—they realized how close the museum was to the action of Lake Merritt but how far away they felt.
“There were a million people around the lake. Standing up on one of these terraces looking down, we realized, nobody knows we’re here,” she said, noting this experience planted the seed for the concrete wall’s removal, the creation of the new entrance, and two new ADA-accessible ramps onto the campus.
The museum staff also wanted an improved space that could hold community events, similar to its popular Friday Nights at OMCA series, which began in 2013. Held on the 10th Street side of the museum, the Friday night programs offered after-hours access to the galleries, in addition to hosting local food vendors, live music, and activities. The new gardens offer the potential for more community programming.
Friday Nights at OMCA is still on pause because of the pandemic, but museum staff say they hope to restart the event this fall. The OMCA team is currently working with Off the Grid, the San Francisco based mobile foods company, to recruit performers and food trucks. “I can say for me personally if there was one thing I miss most in the last 15 months, it was Friday nights at the museum,” Fogarty said.
The plan is to eventually have the museum’s revamped sculpture garden be an open public space—even when the museum is closed. Until then, people can reserve free tickets solely to visit the garden. They will still need to enter at the main entrance on Oak Street and check in with museum staff.
Part of the garden improvement was the planting of native California plants. Each of the garden’s three levels has a different bioregion terrace: the lower level features ferns, the second level has woodlands, and the top level will eventually be all succulents.
During the project, some of the existing sculptures were moved and given a proper renovation, including Betty Gold’s Monumental Holistic 1, George Rickey’s Two Red Lines II, a kinetic piece, and Peter Voulkos’ Mr. Ishi, which was originally commissioned when OMCA opened in 1969 but had been stored away. Other California artists with sculptures in the garden include: Ruth Asawa, Bruce Beasley, Beniamino Bufano, Mark di Suvero, and Viola Frey.
Visitors will also get to see new furniture via an installation titled, “Portals,” by Oakland-based artist, Binta Ayofemi. “The furniture element we knew was important,” Forgarty said. “This is a great opportunity to have a local artist be part of this. Utilizing the architecture to create spaces for rest and reflection.”
The benches, picnic tables, and tables for the new café Ayofemi created from local cedar and redwood are placed throughout the gardens, inside the museum, and will also be at the new, buzzworthy café, Town Fare, led by Oakland chef and restaurateur Tanya Holland. News of Holland taking over the space at the museum was announced in February of 2020 after the closure of her restaurant at the San Francisco Ferry Building.
“I’m combining all my interests at once now: my love for Oakland, my love of art, and the outdoors,” said Holland about how visitors will be able to eat her food while enjoying the museum’s gardens. “We get to have our own herbs and small vegetable garden so it’s just really exciting.”
Holland sees Town Fare as an opportunity to extend her vision of cooking beyond soul food while being in a space that represents the community. “[The space represents] the diversity, which I love about Oakland. I hope that it’ll be well-received.”
Town Fare will operate in a to-go capacity until it opens as a sit-down restaurant later this summer. Foodies will be able to grab picnic boxes to enjoy in the museum’s gardens. Holland said the menu is California soul food-inspired, which will be primarily plant-based and seasonal. Opening weekend dishes included ricotta toast topped with blistered tomatoes, vegetarian muffaletta and fried chicken paillard.
When it opens as a sit-down restaurant later this summer, Town Fare will be open to the public even when the museum is closed, giving that same sense of openness as the gardens. Alterations have been made along the 10th Street side of the museum for the public to have direct entry into the restaurant.
In terms of what art is on display at this time, visitors can see a new mural adjacent to the gardens that’s the result of the museum’s partnership with the Black Cultural Zone, and its Art for the Movement initiative.
Visitors can also see a special exhibition, “You Are Here: California Stories on the Map,” which originally debuted in March 2020. This exhibit showcases an array of maps from Oakland, the Bay Area, and California, intended to tell the stories of how maps shape who we are.
Another ongoing exhibition is “Dorothea Lange: Photography as Activism” which pays homage to the renowned documentary photographer, and “Black Power” which tells the history of the Black Power movements throughout California. Later this summer, the museum will also debut “Mothership: Voyage Into Afrofuturism,” which will explore the art, music, literature, and cinema associated with Afrofuturism, the visionary and generative movement which envisions a just future where Black people and Black ideas thrive.
Visitors to the OMCA are encouraged to buy tickets in advance. The museum is still requiring masks regardless of vaccination status. This particular guideline will remain until further advanced notice by OMCA, and tickets are on a timed-entry basis.