The fabulous new de Young challenges SF's cultural inferiority complex.

By Glen Helfand

WORLD-CLASS . The term is invoked when ambitious San Francisco projects – airports, restaurants, social policy, but particularly cultural institutions – are unveiled, as a benchmark by which we must measure ourselves, usually defensively.

It'll certainly be mentioned in regard to this fall's biggest art event, the opening of the new M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, on Oct. 15. Designed by award-winning Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, who have garnered attention for notable arts buildings such as the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, and the Tate Modern, in London, as well as popular approval for their codesign of the 2008 Olympic stadium, in Beijing. Internationally renowned (and somewhat reclusive) artists Gerhard Richter, Ed Ruscha, James Turrell, Andy Goldsworthy, and Kiki Smith, most of whom were commissioned to make new permanent pieces, will be out for the festivities. International media attention on San Francisco is guaranteed.

Are we up for it? Founded in the late 19th century by the first publishers of the San Francisco Chronicle, the de Young grew out of the populist diversions of the World's Fair. In the latter years of the 20th century, it was home to blockbusters – King Tut made an appearance there, as did many a French impressionist – until Loma Prieta rendered its architecturally hodgepodge, albeit beloved, building an insurance liability. This is to say that the de Young had an identity as the dowdier cousin of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which put its emphasis on the contemporary. The de Young was a place to bring your tottering grandma, not a hot date.

The new building, however, is a makeover of massive proportions – what was once undistinguished and slightly dank California style is now smart, stylish, and even a bit glam, in a friendly, humanist way. It has broader and far hipper appeal. But not everyone here welcomes the update. Some so passionately disapproved of the design that they were moved to legal action to challenge and delay its construction. The exterior has a degree of industrial edge, something that will soften and blend with the landscape as the copper cladding oxidizes to create a patina in shades of green and brown. But the interior is the exact opposite. It displays the architects' incredibly effective balance between the facade and the exhibition space, as well as sensitivity to the site, Golden Gate Park. The new de Young is a light-filled architectural gem that will wow architecture critics and maybe even the local public. I personally am hoping to enjoy some schadenfreude at the expense of those de Young naysayers.

Yet is "world-class" a concept that's in opposition to the de Young's identity as a community-oriented institution, one meant to serve SF's diverse population? The big opening exhibit in the museum's vast temporary exhibition digs, "Hatshepsut: Queen to Pharaoh," may put a feminist twist on exhibitions on ancient monarchs – Hatshepsut was one of very few female pharaohs – but it is not going to get the art world abuzz. It will, however, provide those who may have been on the fence about the modernity of the building with added incentive to get in the door. Who isn't fascinated by the mysticism and sophistication of ancient Egypt? A bigger question is how the de Young's permanent collection, which, while diverse, isn't filled with highly identifiable masterpieces, will fare inside the airy, well-designed new galleries. The curators are charged with giving context to the pieces – examples of African and Oceanic art; contemporary painting, sculpture, and photography; decorative arts; costumes; ceramics; and prints – and with making the works sparkle on a conceptual level.

This mission, however, won't be the first thing addressed by the public. It's the architecture that will draw the crowds, and it's quite possible that the museum is the kind of space that will be most effective when populated. The design is about people – the term permeable is bandied about by the management – with four entrances that are a modest counteractive to the grand facade of sites like the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Nancy B. and Jake L. Hamon Education Tower offers truly stunning views of the park site and the city, and getting up to the top doesn't require admission – though long lines will certainly form during the first public days. Once the buzz settles, it'll likely serve as a site for tourists and trysts, and perhaps even a setting for film or fiction.

Going down that social path makes those world-class concerns recede. This is, in the long run, a place for locals, and right now, it is poised to be a true cultural resource and a place to revel in the physical appeal of the San Francisco landscape, which is so visible from the building's many strategically placed windows. That the de Young's overseeing public arts institution, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, has been able to pull this off, despite the financial and civic obstacles, makes it a real source of local pride. How classy is that?

Fall picks

Tony Labat, the notorious kingpin of the San Francisco Art Institute's New Genres Department, gets a survey of his recent and vintage video, performance, and installation work – including documentation of Fight, his 1981 performance project for which he became a licensed boxer – at New Langton Arts (Sept. 21-Oct. 22), the venue that gave him his first solo commission back in 1978. Meanwhile, Doug Hall, another SFAI professor, kicks off the season with recent globetrotting color photographs at Rena Bransten Gallery (Sept. 8-Oct. 8).

The magnifying scope of mass media is the subject of Chinese-born, Paris-based artist Wang Du's solo show at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (Nov. 19-March 5, 2006). His gleefully hyperbolized, large-scale installations are brash and ribald and tap into a steady flow of media streams.

Libby Black, whose paper Kate Spade boutique is a standout in "Bay Area Now 4," has a solo show of drawings and a sculptural, luxury-label version of Édouard Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe at Heather Marx Gallery (Sept. 8-Oct. 22), while a different kind of fantasy environment – plastic fantastic and futuristic – is the subject of the group show "Fabulandia: Terra" at the Lab (Sept. 30-Oct. 29).

SFMOMA presents three hefty solo shows by contemporary masters: Photographer Robert Adams's latest project traces the exploratory route of Lewis and Clark in "Turning Back: A Photographic Journal of Re-exploration" (Sept. 29-Jan. 3, 2006), and 25 years' worth of Kiki Smith and her free-ranging goth aesthetic will be seen in her first full-scale survey (Nov. 19-Jan. 29, 2006), while "Chuck Close: Self-Portraits 1967-2005" (Nov. 19-Feb. 28, 2006) is pretty self-explanatory.

On the headier side, California College of the Arts' Wattis Institute looks at the legacy of classic conceptualism with "General Ideas: Rethinking Conceptual Art 1987-2005" (Sept. 15-Nov. 13), a group show that includes work by Francis Alÿs, Martin Creed, Andrea Fraser, and Emily Jacir.