As we celebrate the UC Berkeley’s sesquicentennial, it’s inspiring to see how closely the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive’s history has aligned with the university’s since its earliest days.
Our origins date back nearly as far as those of the university itself. The third building on campus, the Bacon Art and Library Building opened in 1881. It housed collections of books and art donated by Henry Douglas Bacon, as well as a few paintings donated in the previous decade, including the magnificent 1872 Albert Bierstadt painting “Yosemite Winter Scene,” which remains one of the most beloved works in BAMPFA’s collection.
When Oscar Wilde visited the Berkeley campus in 1882, he was toured through the museum by an undergraduate, William Dallam Armes. Many years later, in 1919, Armes donated a thousand Japanese prints to the museum, forming the foundation for what is now a collection of global breadth, encompassing Asian works from 3000 BCE, Old Master European paintings and drawings, and international contemporary art, as well as one of the most significant collections of film, video and related archival materials in North America.
The University Art Museum, as it became known, received another transformative gift in 1963 from Abstract Expressionist artist and teacher Hans Hofmann — including 47 paintings, many of them among his best works — that acknowledged the role of the university in introducing him to the United States in 1930. (Many of those paintings, along with other rarely seen works, will be on view at BAMPFA next year in the largest-ever Hofmann retrospective.) Hofmann’s gift also helped fund construction of a new building on Bancroft Way, which housed the museum and its rapidly growing film programs from 1970 until 2016.
UC Berkeley’s art museum — wherever its location and whatever its name — has been thoroughly woven into the fabric of this campus since its inception.
We are integrally connected to the curricular life of the university, serving countless classes that come to the museum either to tour the exhibitions, to attend film screenings or to enjoy customized access to our collections of both art and film. We also organize several projects each year in which students and faculty are directly involved, either through participation in the curatorial process or through researching and authoring interpretive materials.
Even informal encounters with art and film can be helpful in students’ academic progress. There is much research in contemporary learning theory that suggests that encounters with art and film support classroom learning across diverse academic disciplines.
Specifically, a visit to BAMPFA will provide you with challenges to your sense of self, exposure to diverse cultures and what are called “thorny” problems that have no logical reconcilability — problems where you’re presented with something that is perpetually ambiguous and you just have to live with it. Experiences like these do a marvelous job of opening new cognitive spaces, which can lead to measurable improvement in academic performance.
Our aim is to connect with the broadest possible number of departments on campus and to impact the largest number of students. While we maintain a very close connection to the history of art and the practice of art programs, we see our position as fundamental to the education and the experience of all students — physics and law students as much as art and art history students. This is very important to us, because it is our fundamental conviction that art matters to everyone.
I know that the more UC Berkeley students that come to BAMPFA, the better they will do in their classroom work on the campus — on top of which they will come away energized, inspired and excited to be alive.
Lawrence Rinder is the director and chief curator of the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive.