Pier 24 will give any museum a run for its money. It’s free, open by appointment only so it’s never crowded, stocked with an incredible photography collection, and guided by a unique curatorial eye. You can read the full back story of this self described exhibition space in this San Francisco Chronicle piece but the place is the fruit of one collector’s love of photographs and desire to put them on view for the public. That means that it avoids all the pitfalls of museum exhibits: No single artist focus, no obsession with chronology, no overly pedantic attention to a single school. Just great photographs arranged around a general theme. The current show is devoted to portraiture which is broadly interpreted; classic Avedon prints to mug shots.
The experience at Pier 24 is positively liberating. There are no credits on the wall or explications, just general guidance in the program that may describe a room’s contents as “Selected Portraits from the Pilara Foundation Collection.” The lack of credits is occasionally annoying but it only forces you to look closer and admire the work on its merits. Seldom has any exhibition space been so bold in forcing its audience to work to experience pleasure but Pier 24 is proof positive that this should be a more common approach. One of the side effects is that you find yourself slipping into conversations with the handful of other guests milling around, asking a question here, making a verbal note there. Talking to strangers in a museum is underrated fun, you never know what off the wall or dead on reading of a piece you’re going to get.
But the best thing about the experience is that photos are presented thematically so that you’re fully exposed to the curatorial eye. While there are certainly rooms and walls devoted to a single artist there are also entire rooms devoted to juxtaposing photographs from entirely different photographers and eras. The aesthetic friction is a marvel missing from many museums, it creates new ideas by virtue of the contrast.
The only down sides are that the appointment only policy means that you can’t just pop in when you have a free half hour. And their projection system isn’t working right now so they’re not showing Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency until they can get it running again. Per the front desk this problem should be fixed soon.