I will forever remember the day I arrived in San Francisco. I was driving alone, I was on a long solo road trip on the West Coast and that day I left from Napa Valley in the afternoon to reach San Francisco. I was following the route my GPS planned for me and I didn’t know it chose the scenic one. At a point, while I was driving in the traffic, I spotted the Golden Gate Bridge and I knew I was almost at my final destination. 

San Francisco welcomed me with a beautiful sunset, a lot of traffic, and the funny experience of driving up and down its hills. After weeks of long roads, from Seattle through Oregon and Northern California, San Francisco was a completely new experience. And the following days the city proved itself as one of the most incredible places I have ever visited. 

First of all, San Francisco is full of history. Which, to be completely honest, is pretty rare in the USA, and especially on the West Coast. From the California Gold Rush in the XIX century to the Hippies in the 1960s and the Silicon Valley geeks today, San Francisco is the city of counter cultures and innovations. And today, it is also an important destination for contemporary art lovers. Together with museums and a group of interesting galleries, San Francisco also hosts interesting art fairs, like Art Market San Francisco and various exhibitions and art events. 

So, to give you a glimpse of what the city has to offer, here are four destinations you must visit when looking for contemporary art in San Francisco. 

contemporary art san francisco - SFMOMA

SFMOMA – San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 

If you are looking for a mind-blowing contemporary art experience in San Francisco, look no further. SFMOMA is an extraordinary museum, with an amazing collection and superb spaces. 
I was there in 2016, just a few weeks after its reopening, and I totally loved it. So much so, that I ended up spending almost an entire day there, completely forgetting about the rest of the things I had to see and do in San Francisco. Ah, the perks of traveling alone

Anyway, back to the museum. SFMOMA was founded in 1935 as the San Francisco Museum of Art and it was the first museum on the West Coast devoted solely to 20th-century art. The museum’s current collection includes over 33,000 artworks, displayed in 170,000 square feet (16,000 m2) of exhibition space. The museum also has a 100-year loan for the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection of contemporary art, a tremendous private collection of over 1,100 pieces. 
The building underwent a massive renovation and expansion project between 2013 and 2016, turning the museum into one of the largest in the United States overall, and one of the largest in the world for modern and contemporary art.

Here you will find all the best masters, from Matisse to Duchamp, down to the best American painters and artists of the XX century. The museum hosts several temporary exhibitions every year, plus a number of events, screenings, educational actives, and so forth, but you can also browse the museum’s permanent collection on their website if you still can’t travel to the Bay Area. 
Extra points for the SFMOMA App, which allows visitors to use their mobile phones to follow the guided visit of the museum at their own pace while the App tracks their location. A little creepy, but super useful! 

SFMOMA – San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third St – San Francisco, CA 94103

Info, tickets, and opening hours

contemporary art san francisco - Asian Art Museum
Bjjung, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Asian Art Museum 

Not entirely dedicated to contemporary art, but still a must-visit in San Francisco, the Asian Art Museum – Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture houses one of the most comprehensive Asian art collections in the world, with more than 18,000 works of art in its permanent collection, some as much as 6,000 years old.
The collections range from ancient jades and ceramics to contemporary video installations, hosted inside a massive building in the heart of the city. 

Completely renovated in 2017, the museum has a whole section dedicated to contemporary art, where they display the most interesting exhibitions and artists from Asia. Here you can immerse yourself in the latest trends in art coming from Asia, while at the same time dive deeper into its long history of art. As the museum itself states “[The museum is] a vibrant hub for discovering the magnificent artistic achievements and intriguing history of the world’s most populous continent, the Asian Art Museum continues to bridge cultures, engage the imagination, and inspire new ways of thinking”.
They have a permanent collection on display and at the same time, they offer a rich program of temporary exhibitions, cultural celebrations, and public programs for all ages. Come here to take a full trip to Asia without moving from the Bay area!

Asia Art Museum
200 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA 94102, United States

Info, tickets, and opening hours

contemporary art san francisco - CCA Wattis Institute
Josephine Pryde, lapses in Thinking By the person i Am, 2015; installation view, CCA Wattis Institute.
Courtesy of Josephine Pryde. Photo: Johnna Arnold.

CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art

The Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts is a contemporary art center located in San Francisco and dedicated entirely to artists and ideas. As they state on their website “The Wattis supports artists who take risks and experiment with new ideas. We provide a public forum to established, emerging, and under-recognized artists who challenge our ways of understanding the art of our current moment”. Amazing, right? 

The Wattis is part of the California College of the Arts and it works in two different fields: as an exhibition space, displaying the work of national and international artists, and as a research center. The center hosts exhibitions, lectures, symposia, releases publications and runs a residency program. 
Established in 1998, the Wattis Institute was originally located on the San Francisco campus of the California College of the Arts in a former Greyhound Bus maintenance facility, but it was moved in 2013 to its current location. 

Upon its founding in 1998, the Wattis also absorbed the Capp Street Project, one of the earliest and longest-running artist-in-residence programs in the country, founded in 1983 by Ann Hatch. By 2020 the Capp Street Project has supported over 100 local, national, and international artists through its residency and public exhibition programs.

California College of the Arts (CCA) Wattis Institute
360 Kansas St, San Francisco, CA 94103, United States

Info, tickets, and opening hours

contemporary art san francisco - Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
BrokenSphere, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Last but not least, just steps away from the Asian Art Museum and right in front of SFMOMA, you can visit the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. YBCA is a multi-disciplinary contemporary arts center, that features visual art, performance, and film/video to celebrate local, national, and international artists and the Bay Area’s diverse communities. 

Opened in 1993, it serves mainly as a performance and music venue, but it also hosts interesting exhibitions and installations. Quoting their website: “Our work spans the realms of contemporary art, performance, film, civic engagement, and public life. Centering artists as essential to social and cultural movement, YBCA is reimagining the role an arts institution can play in the community it serves”. 

The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is the perfect match to SFMOMA for a full day of contemporary art. You can easily visit both in a day if you want to immerse yourself in a full art tour. Or you can pair it with a visit to the local Museum of the African Diaspora, right in front of the YBCA, or the Contemporary Jewish Museum, just a block away. Plenty of choices, you can’t be disappointed! 

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94103, United States

Info, tickets, and opening hours