The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, more commonly known as BAMPFA, encouraged students to explore their creative sides and expand their cultural perspectives long before the opening of its present space in 2016.
The first building for the museum, called the Bacon Library and Art Museum, opened in 1881. Just a short nine years after the conception of the university, the building was the third on Cal’s original campus. The art and film collection dates back as early as the 1870s, its oldest piece dating back to 1872.
“The works that were acquired for that building are still in our collection,” said Museum Director and Chief Curator Lawrence Rinder. “If you see the collection as kind of the core of the museum, that does make us the oldest art museum on the West Coast.”
The Pacific Film Archive has also held screenings for more than 40 years. It projects about 450 works of art every calendar year in the Barbro Osher Theater, according to Susan Oxtoby, the senior film curator for PFA. Oxtoby said the archive’s ultimate mission is to show the history of cinema as an art form and make its collections accessible to the general public.
“The people of the city of Berkeley have had really almost unparalleled opportunity to learn about film,” Rinder said. “Our audiences here are probably the most sophisticated film audiences in the country.”
The biggest change in the museum’s history thus far has been the 2016 move from its location on Bancroft Way to Oxford Street in Downtown Berkeley. Rinder called the previous site “architecturally unique, dramatic and exciting.” Yet after 46 years there, the museum directors longed for a change of scenery.
“We almost doubled the attendance since the old building,” Rinder said. “The architects really opened up the building so it’s much more transparent — you can walk down the street and look in and see art and it announces itself as a museum of art and film. Once you’re inside, I think it feels very warm and welcoming.”
The move was enacted for a variety of reasons. Employees noted the clunkiness of the old structure, the remoteness of the location from the Downtown BART station and the former building’s confusing entranceways.
“In the new building, we have new spaces that support certain kinds of educational opportunities,” Director of Education and Academic Relations Sherry Goodman said. “Now we have what’s called the Art Lab. This is frankly quite wonderful for the community because I don’t know where else you can just drop in and have someone help and encourage you to make art.”
The new location, designed by New York firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, provides the chance to further unite the art gallery and the film archive as one entity. Having the gallery and film archive share an entrance helps bring attention to both spheres of this world of art and culture. Additionally, museumgoers receive free access to the gallery when attending a film screening the same day.
“Our goal is to be meaningful to every student on campus — not just art history and practice of art students,” Rinder said. “We feel that the museum has something to offer to everybody, and that the engagement with the arts and engagement with the museum helps people deal with the crazy world we live in.”
Rinder has been with the museum for nearly 20 years. Presently, he works with a network of BAMPFA curators to organize and fund the exhibitions that viewers admire every season.
“I try to make sure that all the curators have clearly defined what we call ‘audience impact goals,’ ” Rinder said. “We have a kind of internal motto, which is ‘Excellence plus edge equals energy.’ We’re looking for something that’s pushing the envelope, even if it’s a historical show. What is the newness or the innovation or the fresh perspective that the show is bringing to our audiences?”
According to Rinder, about 15 percent or less of BAMPFA’s yearly budget is funded by the university system. A recurring stress for the museum over all these years has rested in the financial department, which has to raise a majority of its own funds for the museum to stay afloat.
“We plan our exhibition calendar two to three years out because it takes a long time to plan exhibitions or raise money for them,” Rinder said. “I don’t think we need huge amounts of money — we don’t want to expand or anything like that,” Rinder said. “We just want to stay being great, and to do that we need financial support. We’re so grateful to the students for that support because it’s just totally kept us afloat, and I hope that that continues.”
Students have several ways to get involved at BAMPFA, especially with the Student Committee, which connects the campus community to the happenings of the museum, and the tour guide training program for graduate students.
“I think the students are very involved here,” Chief Preparator Kelly Bennett said. “I see them in here all the time. They seem very familiar with what we do and I think they take advantage of a lot of the different things that we provide.”
Coming soon to BAMPFA is its integration with Berkeley High School, where the museum hopes to inspire younger generations to explore the art scene the Bay has to offer through specialized film programs.
“I think when people think of the Bay Area, it’s hard to separate your impression of life here from the arts and culture,” Rinder said. “I think the cliché of the Bay Area is that everyone here is creative in one way or the other — they’re creative in business, or they’re creative in art, or they’re creative in whatever they do. I think that sense of creativity and innovation is very closely connected to the prevalence of the arts here.”
Rather than rifling through art magazines to investigate chatter about what matters across the nation, Rinder’s biggest inspirations come from the diversity of art around him. He noted that the “independent spirit” of Bay Area artists is something that he adopts in his own vision.
BAMPFA ultimately has a significant impact on the East Bay, bringing our local art scene and pieces from around the world together to coexist in the same gallery.
“I think that we are a different kind of museum,” Rinder said. “And for those students who say to themselves, ‘Well I’ve been to museums, they’re not for me,’ they should try BAMPFA. I think that there really is a more open kind of vibrant feeling here where we really are trying our hardest to be relevant and meaningful to everybody, so I hope that everybody would give it a chance and check it out.”