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“Art Capital of the West”: Real and Imagined Art Museums and Galleries in Berkeley

October 11, 2015 through April 2, 2016


The Bacon Art and Library Building (1881), one of the first buildings on the UC Berkeley campus, featured an art gallery. The flagpole at the right in this 1901 photo was where the Campanile now stands. Photo courtesy of the Berkeley Public Library.


When artist Jennie V. Cannon visited Berkeley in 1907, she wrote, “I could not believe my eyes—there were artist groups and displays everywhere—so many fine artists that this place surpasses San Francisco as the art capital of the West.” Coinciding with the opening of the new UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, the Berkeley Historical Society exhibit explores over a century of hopes, dreams, successes and setbacks of Berkeley art museums and galleries. 

Among the art institutions covered are: 

• The earliest UC art gallery, initiated shortly after the move to Berkeley

• Other art display spaces at Cal, including the “brutalist” building on Bancroft Avenue, recently added to the National Register of Historic Places and renamed Woo Han Fai Hall

• The Studio Building (built in 1906, housed Berkeley’s first public art gallery)

• The short-lived downtown public Berkeley Art Museum (1928–1932, Samuel Hume, director)

• Ames Gallery, slated to close in December this year (after 45 years in a Cedar Street home)

• Berkeley Art Center (in Live Oak Park since 1967)

• Numerous other galleries in existence by 1990 


“Imagined” but never realized spaces include:

• A large, prominently located museum envisioned in the University’s master planning of the late 19th–early 20th century

• Almost half a century of dreams and campaigns for a William Keith Gallery

• A post-World War II arts complex on the civic center plaza

• Japanese architect Toyo Ito’s 2006-2008 design for the new UC Berkeley Art Museum, abandoned in 2009 due to its expense during the recession


A review of the history of art exhibition spaces in Berkeley is especially relevant now, as the opening of the new UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive approaches and as the Civic Arts Commission embarks on a new master plan that may revive a perennial dream of a civic arts center in the downtown area. This exhibit is a first attempt to piece together a complex history, and more information is likely to emerge during the course of the show. 


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