Foreigners’ Self-Segregating Art Preferences

The large majority of visitors to San Francisco’s major art museums are local, or at least American. But I’ll often overhear the accent or language of a foreign visitor, which is no surprise, since I’d be visiting their art museums in their country. What I do find surprising is that certain nationalities tend towards certain museums.

The De Young Museum is in Golden Gate Park, and offers spectacular views of the park from all its windows. The museum focuses on American art, from the indigenous to the modern, and has a whimsical sculpture garden. It also tends to host internationally-touring exhibits, such as “Hatsepshut: From Queen to Pharaoh” and “Vivienne Westwood: 36 Years in Fashion.” If you run across a foreign visitor in the galleries, odds are they are British or German.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MoMA), like the name says, focuses on modern art, and it’s located downtown, convenient to the more upscale hotels. SF MoMA enjoys showcasing the work of local modern artists, and, er, challenging art. You can love the art, or hate the art, but the curators only think they failed if you didn’t feel anything at all. They also have a good range of established modern art on the second floor, and an educational center to help you figure it all out. When I hear a foreign language being spoken here, it’s French, Russian, or Japanese.

The Legion of Honor specializes in classical European art, from the 1300s to the mid-20th-century. Its special exhibits, like Monet in Normandy, or Art Wear, highlight their own permanent collection with borrowed pieces. Downstairs, there’s some Roman sculpture, a fine china collection, and a small theatre that puts on opera (in English) a few times a year. It’s in a beautiful neo-classical reconstruction of a French building. The museum, however, is off the beaten path for all but the dedicated art tourist, since it’s in the northwest corner of San Francisco, where tourist attractions are few. The only foreign visitor I noticed (and hadn’t brought in myself) was an Italian woman.

My conclusions aren’t absolute. Certainly, while I wasn’t there, an Italian may have popped in to SF MoMA, and a Frenchman admired the tapestries at the Legion of Honor. But I still think there are preferences involved in the art tourists’ choices.

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