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BAMPFA History and Mission

Mission

The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is the visual arts center of the University of California, Berkeley. Our mission is to inspire the imagination and ignite critical dialogue through art and film. We aspire to be locally connected and globally relevant, engaging audiences from the campus, community, and beyond.

History

As a center for visual culture bringing together art and film, BAMPFA staked out a position squarely in the avant-garde from its beginnings over forty years ago, creating an arena of new thought and innovative techniques while operating within a context of historical and cultural reflection. Today, BAMPFA continues to showcase international works of art and film from the leading edge while also presenting historical works in meaningful contexts.

While the first gifts of artwork were made to the University of California, Berkeley just two years after its founding, in 1870, it wasn’t until Abstract Expressionist artist and teacher Hans Hofmann donated forty-five of his paintings and $250,000 to the University in 1963 that the University Art Museum (as it was then called) came into existence. Hofmann wrote that his gift was meant to acknowledge the role of the University in giving him his start as an artist and teacher in the United States in 1930. An architectural competition to design a building for the newly founded museum was announced the following year and the building was completed in 1970. Meanwhile, in 1964, Peter Selz, a former curator at MoMA in New York, was hired to direct the new enterprise. Between 1964 and 1970, Selz organized an energetic program of contemporary exhibitions at the 1904 brick Powerhouse Gallery on the University campus—including Directions in Kinetic Sculpture and Funk—and expanded the collections in anticipation of a new home for the fledgling institution.

During this period, Selz was approached by Sheldon Renan about creating a film archive under the aegis of the museum; Renan had been screening films on the UC Berkeley campus in collaboration with Albert Johnson and Tom Luddy. Selz accepted and Renan was named director of the Pacific Film Archive in 1967. Renan conceived of the Pacific Film Archive as an American version of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris: a place where cinema patrons, artists, students, and critics could watch the widest range of the world's films in the best technical and environmental conditions, that would also be a center for study, discussion, and exchange. The early programs, held in Wheeler and Dwinelle Halls, established the range of exhibition—avant-garde, international, and classic cinema was screened weekly—and commitment to bringing filmmakers to the theater: Jean-Luc Godard and Fritz Lang were among the first in-person guests.

The First Building, 1970–2014

The site selected for the new museum, a large sloping lot across from the main campus, was owned by the University and occupied by a parking lot and a former fraternity house, the basement of which housed art professor Peter Voulkos’s pottery workshop and classes. San Francisco architect Mario Ciampi and associates Richard L. Jorasch and Ronald E. Wagner were selected from a field of 366 competition entries for the new building. Ciampi (1907–2006), an Ecole des Beaux-Arts–trained architect known for his urban planning as much as his architecture, created a dramatic concrete structure for the new institution, with cantilevered galleries spiraling fan-like above a sweeping central atrium space. The building was conceived and designed not only to house a dynamic program of art and film exhibition, but to make “an aesthetic statement of its own,” according to founding director Peter Selz. 

In the San Francisco Chronicle, Alfred Frankenstein praised it as the “Bay Region’s first thoroughly modern museum structure . . . a major work of art in itself.”

The almost Cubist massing of BAMPFA’s exterior, with its unadorned planes of cast concrete joining at sharp angles, creates a strong sculptural presence across the street from the UC Berkeley campus. Often compared to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, Ciampi's BAMPFA is similarly anchored by a central full-height sky-lit interior volume and is ringed by ramps enabling access to the tiered exhibition galleries. Yet rather than the smooth spherical forms of Wright’s museum, Ciampi embraced a Brutalist approach, with blocky cantilevered concrete slabs jutting into the enormous hollow at the center. The galleries fan out and step up in a radial plan from the central node of the atrium, an organization echoed in the roof plan and dramatically revealed in views from the surrounding hills.

In his landmark History of Building Types, British architectural historian Nicolaus Pevsner cited BAMPFA as the preeminent example of the application of Brutalism to museum design. The influence of the Brutalist style, pioneered in the UK by Alison and Peter Smithson and in France by Le Corbusier, is evident throughout, from the massive scale and sculptural approach to the raw concrete and the angular composition. Brutalism (from the French brut, or raw, as in béton brut, raw concrete) was popular in the United States in 1960s and 1970s, particularly on American college campuses; its rejection of elite historical architectural styles and expensive materials seemed suited to the progressive ideals of the time. Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building at Yale (1958) was among the first, and other notable examples include the campus of UMass Dartmouth (1963–66), also by Rudolph; the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago (Walter Nesch, 1970); the UC San Diego Library (William Pereira, 1970); and UC Berkeley’s own Wurster Hall (Joseph Esherick et al., 1964).

The building was of its time in more than architectural style. The nontraditional gallery spaces were seen as appropriate for the avant-garde art that Selz planned to showcase. The reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, Henry J. Seldis, noted that the “great hall will prove to be ideal for those vanguard directions in art that seek to present creative processes divorced from material form and are breaking boundaries between the media of sound, sight and touch.”

Construction began in 1967 and the building opened on November 7, 1970, with the first film screening following two months later. Selz staged a multidisciplinary contemporary art extravaganza for the 1970 opening, featuring happenings by artists William Wiley and Robert Hudson; poetry readings by Gary Snyder, Richard Brautigan, and Robert Duncan; and a performance of Parades and Changes, the seminal dance by the avant-garde Anna Halprin Dancers. (Halprin reprised the dance, for its final stagings, at BAMPFA in 2013.) The inaugural exhibition, Excellence: Art from the University Community, represented what have continued to be the cornerstones of our collection: historical Asian paintings and works on paper; European old masters and nineteenth-century paintings and prints; American works of the nineteenth century ranging from folk to landscape traditions; and twentieth-century art from the Abstract Expressionist era to the present. On January 22, 1971, the theater opened with a three-day celebration of international and experimental cinema; Akira Kurosawa's Dodeskaden was the first film screened.

The building was dedicated as Woo Hon Fai Hall in 2011, named for the father of David Woo (College of Environmental Design ’67). David Woo began his career working for Ciampi Associates on the design of BAMPFA.

The New BAMPFA, 2016–

Twenty-seven years after the completion of Mario Ciampi's building, the University declared it building seismically unsafe. In 2001, the University determined that the current building could not be sufficiently retrofitted in a way that would not compromise the interior exhibition spaces. As temporary measures, immense steel braces were added to the exterior of the building to support the cantilevered concrete and film screenings were moved to a building across the street to the Hearst Field Annex on the UC campus. A decision was made to move BAMPFA to a new location and a University-owned site in downtown Berkeley, on Center Street between Oxford and Shattuck, was identified. An initial design, by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, was abandoned in 2008 because of its high cost. A new, more affordable design by the New York firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro that focuses on the adaptive reuse of existing buildings is currently under construction. The new facility, which will reunite the exhibition galleries and film theater and join the campus and city communities, opened in January 2016.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro merged old and new into a dynamic and versatile home for BAMPFA’s offices, collections, and programs. The building integrates a 48,000-square-foot Art Deco–style building, formerly the UC Berkeley printing plant, with a 35,000-square-foot new structure. The printing plant’s distinctive north-facing sawtooth roof has been preserved, which will allow filtered natural light into many of the ground-floor galleries. The new structure, a stainless steel–clad curvilinear volume, carries into the twenty-first century the streamlined Deco style of the 1939 printing plant. This distinctive form extends from the theater volume at the northeast corner to the cafe, which dramatically cantilevers above the main entrance on Center Street. BAMPFA visitors will enjoy two film theaters (with 232 seats and 33 seats, respectively), a performance forum, cafe, four study centers for art and film, a reading room, an art-making lab, and various creatively designed gathering areas. 

A Note on Our Name

At its inception in 1963, the museum was known as the University Art Museum, and popularly as UAM. The Pacific Film Archive (PFA) was officially a curatorial department of the museum. In 1996 the name changed to University Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (UAM/PFA), reflecting the conception of the organization as a unified entity consisting of two primary programmatic components, art and film, and strengthened by the interplay between the two. To indicate the museum's dual role as an institution serving both campus and community, the name was revised again in 1996 to be: University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, or BAMPFA.

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