The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is the visual arts center of the University of California, Berkeley. BAMPFA inspires the imagination, ignites critical dialogue, and activates community engagement through art, film, and other forms of creative expression.
BAMPFA’s origins can be traced back to 1881 with the opening of the Bacon Art and Library Building. Just the third building constructed on the UC Berkeley campus, it was named for Henry Douglas Bacon, who donated his library, several paintings, and half the funds for its construction. The museum’s collection started small, with Bacon’s paintings and a few other works that had been given to the University in the 1870s. Among Bacon’s gifts was the magnificent Albert Bierstadt painting Yosemite Winter Scene (1872), which remains one of the most beloved works in BAMPFA’s collection.
Few additional works of art were accessioned until 1919, when a bequest from Cal alumnus and professor of literature William Dallam Armes added approximately one thousand Japanese prints to the collection. With this gift, the museum became an institution of global breadth, establishing the foundation for what is now a near-encyclopedic collection with works that date back to 3,000 BCE in Asia and to the Renaissance in Europe.
The Powerhouse Gallery & Bancroft Way Building
In 1931, the university transformed a former power plant (designed in 1904 by architect John Galen Howard) at the center of campus to use as an exhibition venue. Known as the Powerhouse Gallery, the diminutive brick building served this purpose until 1970 when the new University Art Museum, designed by San Francisco architect Mario Ciampi and associates Richard L. Jorasch and Ronald E. Wagner, opened on Bancroft Way. The impetus for this ambitious new building was the 1963 donation by Abstract Expressionist artist and teacher Hans Hofmann of forty-seven of his paintings and $250,000. Hofmann wrote that his gift was meant to acknowledge the role of the University in giving him his start as an artist and teacher in the United States in 1930. The architectural competition to design a building for the newly founded museum was announced the following year. Meanwhile, Peter Selz, a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was hired to direct the museum. Between his hiring in 1964 and the opening of the new building in 1970, Selz organized a visionary program of contemporary exhibitions at the Powerhouse Gallery—including the seminal Directions in Kinetic Sculpture and Funk—and expanded the collections significantly in both historical and contemporary areas in anticipation of a new home for the museum.
Pacific Film Archive
During this period, Selz was approached by Sheldon Renan, who had been screening films on the UC Berkeley campus in collaboration with Albert Johnson and Tom Luddy, about creating a film archive under the aegis of the museum. Selz agreed, and Renan was named director of the Pacific Film Archive in 1967. Renan conceived of the Pacific Film Archive as an American version of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris: a place where cinema patrons, artists, students, and critics could watch the widest range of the world’s films in the best technical and environmental conditions, that would also be a center for study, discussion, and exchange. The early programs, held in Wheeler and Dwinelle Halls, established the range of cinema presented—avant-garde, international, and classic films were screened weekly. Renan also established an early commitment to bringing filmmakers to the theater (Jean-Luc Godard and Fritz Lang were among the first in-person guests), which continues today. In 1971, the film program moved into the new museum building on Bancroft Way and became an integral part of the growing institution’s collection and exhibition activities.
Building the Collection
With a large new space came renewed focus on building the art collection. As a university institution with relatively few resources for acquisitions, the museum has relied on donors throughout its history. From the initial gifts from Bacon and others in the 1870s and the early generosity of Phoebe Hearst (who founded the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, now at UC Berkeley, in 1901), to more recent gifts from individuals such as Therese Bonney, Sarah Cahill, Francis and Jean Marshall, Marcia Weisman, Michael Naify, Peter and Eileen Norton, and Alan Templeton, and many others, the vision of its donors has substantially shaped the collection and contributed to several areas of particular strength.
One such strength is Ming and Qing dynasty Chinese painting, the specialization of scholar James Cahill, who taught at UC Berkeley for decades and served briefly as acting director of the museum. Cahill’s legendarily keen eye and astute connoisseurship enabled him to develop an extraordinary collection of Chinese (as well as Japanese) painting, much of which he donated to—or purchased for—the museum. This collection forms the basis of one of the country’s finest collections of Chinese painting.
Programs presented in the Bancroft Way building demonstrated the comprehensive nature of the growing collection. Among them were exhibitions of the works of Ant Farm, Joe Brainard, Joan Brown, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Robert Colescott, Jay DeFeo, Juan Gris, Eva Hesse, Paul Kos, Robert Mapplethorpe, Barry McGee, Richard Misrach, Bruce Nauman, Peter Paul Rubens, Martin Puryear, Sebastião Salgado, William Wiley, and many others, as well as thematic exhibitions including Made in U.S.A.: An Americanization in Modern Art, the ’50s & ’60s; State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970; In a Different Light; Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet; Masterworks of Chinese Painting: In Pursuit of Mists and Clouds; Beauty Revealed: Images of Women in Qing Dynasty Painting; and Andrea Fraser: Aren’t They Lovely?.
The renowned MATRIX Program for Contemporary Art, founded by Director James Elliott in 1978, has been a venue for innovative works by important emerging artists for nearly forty years, affording the spontaneity and flexibility of a small-scale, short-term format. MATRIX has featured artists such as Doug Aitken, John Baldessari, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Louise Bourgeois, James Lee Byars, Sophie Calle, Bruce Conner, Nan Goldin, Nicole Eisenman, Omer Fast, Eva Hesse, David Ireland, Jess, Sol LeWitt, Shirin Neshat, Ernesto Neto, Martin Puryear, Nancy Spero, Andy Warhol, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Each year, approximately 450 film screenings have offered opportunities to discover and explore cinema from every film-producing country in the world. BAMPFA has presented rare and rediscovered prints of movie classics, new and historic works by the world’s great film directors, restored silent films with live musical accompaniment, thematic retrospectives, and innovative works made by today’s film, video, and new-media artists working in animation, documentary, experimental, and fiction film. Continuing the tradition established in the Pacific Film Archive’s first years, screenings are often enlivened by in-person appearances by filmmakers, authors, critics, and scholars, who engage in discussion with audiences. Past series have included Discovering Georgian Cinema; Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area; Chronicles of Inferno: Japan’s Art Theater Guild; Days of Glory: Revisiting Italian Neorealism; Isabelle Huppert: Passion and Contradiction; Castles in the Sky: Masterful Anime from Studio Ghibli; Grand Illusions: French Cinema Classics, 1928–1960; Women’s Cinema from Tangiers to Tehran; and Gregory Peck: An Agreeable Gentleman. BAMPFA has also featured retrospectives of filmmakers Michelangelo Antonioni, Stan Brakhage, Robert Bresson, Luis Buñuel, Jacques Demy, Claire Denis, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jean-Luc Godard, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, George and Mike Kuchar, Akira Kurosawa, Ida Lupino, Guy Maddin, Chris Marker, Nagisa Oshima, Marcel Pagnol, Satyajit Ray, Roberto Rossellini, Raúl Ruiz, Kidlat Tahimik, Agnès Varda, Dziga Vertov, and numerous others.
In 1996, the name of the museum was changed to the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA).
A New Building in Downtown Berkeley
In 1997, the Bancroft Way building was declared seismically unsafe, and planning and fundraising began for the construction of a new home for BAMPFA on Center Street between Oxford and Shattuck, where the UC Berkeley campus meets downtown Berkeley. The New York-based architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro was selected to design the new facility, which opened on January 31, 2016. The building integrates a 48,000-square-foot 1939 Art Deco–style building, formerly the UC Berkeley printing plant, with a 35,000-square-foot new structure, creating a dynamic, versatile, and easily accessible home for BAMPFA’s collections, programs, and offices. The printing plant’s distinctive north-facing sawtooth roof was preserved, allowing filtered natural light into many of the ground-floor galleries. The structure, a stainless steel–clad curvilinear volume, carries into the twenty-first century the streamlined Deco style of the 1939 printing plant. In addition to a range of exhibition galleries, BAMPFA visitors can now enjoy two film theaters (with 232 seats and 33 seats, respectively), a performance forum, cafe, four study centers for art and film, a reading room, an art-making lab, and various creatively designed gathering areas. Connected both to campus and the burgeoning Berkeley Arts District and located just a block from the Downtown Berkeley BART station, BAMPFA is more accessible and better positioned than ever to, as our mission states, “inspire the imagination and ignite critical dialogue through art, film, and other forms of creative expression.”