Museum outreach and accueil

Art museums all over are much concerned to broaden their audiences across racial, ethnic, and age cohorts, with innovative programming, better labels and signs, docent tours, more seating in the galleries, and other ways to make visitors, but especially new visitors, feel qualified to attend and welcome.  They have a long way to go, but the trend is in the right direction.

One interface important to a good visit experience is a café or restaurant. This is a little tricky, because food preferences differ across income and education strata, and between kids and grownups. But it’s not that tricky, and not an excuse for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s highlight-reel own goal, the new In Situ restaurant.

The nice ground-floor cafeteria with ordinary art museum food (interesting salads, carrot cake, pesto chicken sandwiches; that sort of thing) has been displaced by an experiment that truly beggars belief.  The museum rented the space to, or hired, a locally famous chef (who has a Michelin three-star place in the city), and together they imagined a sort of international food museum  with a dish each from a couple of dozen restaurants around the world. This is not intrinsically ill-conceived, but it may be a hint of what’s to come that the name of the restaurant exactly contradicts its actuality; all the food, displaced from its origins, is exactly not in situ.

The lunch experience begins with a menu written by someone who doesn’t know the difference between like and as, but museum people are more visual types than verbal, and we didn’t come to eat the menu. The décor is extremely spare and the service at the dangerous border of unctuous and pretentious; in case we didn’t realize how good it was (the food took 40 minutes to arrive) a 20% “charge”, which might be a tip for the staff but then again, might just be a charge, is added to the bill.  What we tried of the food is good upper-end, far from “wow, you have to try this!” but the real distinction of this establishment is the combination of stupefying prices (think of coming to the museum with two kids and lunching here; you do the math) and portions that demand real creativity to describe. Imagine a restaurant run by someone who thinks food is the most expensive input to putting a plate before a diner, so the less of it you use compared to, say, labor, the better.

The carrot soup is served in a shot glass (really). The dadinhos are as follows:

The “Slow cooked farm egg” is just that, one egg, in a little cup, on a bed of crumbs of the other ingredients. (How reassuring, though, to know it wasn’t a gymnasium, coal mine, hospital or some otherwise sourced egg!) How much does an egg cost wholesale, even an actual farm egg?  A carrot?

Naturally, I had to try my namesake’s “Emancipation”.  It is indeed emancipated, for example from any accompanying starch or vegetable, and far from a main “course”,  just a smallish hunk of fish, served over a stingy Franz Kline-esque dribble of soot sauce [actually I like seppie in inchiostro and other ink dishes] on an enormous plate, with some fried potato crumbles on top. Definitely not a side of fries; some crumbles:

We left, poorer, wiser, and starving, to hit the café on the fifth floor  for enough additional actual food to constitute a meal. Altogether at least an hour and a half not looking at art, which is what we mainly came for. Remember, this establishment is listed as “restaurant” on the museum signs and maps; it isn’t an alien presence that happens to rent a shop on the street.

What population’s  can the SFMOMA brass possibly be hoping to embrace on return visits with this arrogant, pretentious, overpriced, disaster? I was pleased to see that on a holiday Saturday, the place was almost empty, this encourages my hope that it will be gone and replaced with a serious enterprise that doesn’t simultaneously insult, starve, and beggar me by my next visit.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

9 thoughts on “Museum outreach and accueil”

  1. In SF, you are not their target market. The economy has become very much segmented, mostly into people who have to care about money and people who don’t.

  2. ” … we didn’t come to eat the menu…” I recall reading of an avant-garde restaurant in Chicago that offers just that. The menu is printed with an inkjet printer on rice paper using edible inks. The customer crumbles the menu into the soup.

  3. The New Cruelty! (“L.A. Story”)

    Foodies. What to do about them? I mostly just ignore. We all have some foodie in us, I think. Agree with Paulw - they are talking to each other. Tulum types. Whatever.

    Maybe they cross-subsidize?

    1. French for welcome. I threw that in to be sure museum people know I’m a high-class, cultured person of the type In Situ is aimed at.

      1. I spoke with a friend about this, who’d told me about this resto long ago, when he’d come to SF specifically to visit it. I include below (with permission) his response.

        I’ve been to In Situ multiple times. A tasting menu at a typical Michelin restaurant is around 8-15 dishes and $200-300. In Situ servers are great at recommending an optimal spread that you won’t leave hungry but folks should expect to spend $60-80 minimally. Menu changes about once a month, the current revival of shrimp grits is one of the greatest dishes ever IMHO. For two right now, I’d get the Cuttlefish Cappucino, 2 x Shrimp grits, and Roasted Filet of Beef and Smoked Bone Marrow, and Jasper Hill Farm Cheesecake which would clock in at about $170 with no drinks.

        In Situ is perfect for the museum as it allows you to taste some of the greatest and retrospective dishes from the best restaurants around the world. WD-50 has been closed for years.

        To answer the first comment: Corey Lee’s Benu is 53 on the World’s 50 Best list with a tasting menu that starts at $295…

        1. He added:

          I should also mention that In Situ is very different from a tasting menu in that tasting menus have a theme that hold them together. In Situ are individual ala carte dishes that are unrelated other than the fact that they are representative of some of the finest restaurants in the world. Again perfect for being housed at a modern art museum. Edible art with a separate admission.

  4. My friend’s point is that if you view In Situ as an exhibit, with a separate entrance fee, it makes sense. And, well, let’s take that as read. It still seems a little outrageous that that’s the main museum restaurant, and specifically out-of-character with restaurants at comparable museums. Mr. O’Hare’s point about accueil is a strong one: museum restaurants have traditionally been part of the infrastructure of the museum, not part of the exhibits. It’s something like making the car-park into an exhibit, where you pay to park, but also have your car repainted by conceptual artists, or various parts replaced with Dali-esque work-alikes. I mean, maybe you just wanted to -park-, not participate in some art installation?

    But I guess, I can see how someone might see things differently.

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