By Peter Kupfer
SAN FRANCISCO, 28 OCTOBER 2005 óIt was 3:30 a.m. on an unusually fog-free night in Golden Gate
Park and Carlos Rivera was waiting in line with his wife and four young
children outside the de Young Museum. What had brought the Riveras and
thousands of other people to the park at such an un-Godly hour was the
opening of the de Youngís new $203 million home, a copper-clad rectangular
slab punctuated by a twisting nine-story tower set amid regal palm trees
and terrarium-like gardens, a milestone the museum was celebrating by
offering free admission for 29 consecutive hours.
are excited," said Rivera, dressed in a blue hooded sweatshirt emblazoned
with a red-and-yellow Superman logo, who came directly to the museum from
his job at a restaurant in suburban Concord. "They thought it would be fun
to have a pajama party in the museum." His children, ages 13, 10, 5 and 4,
didnít seem all that excited. The four-year-old was sound
asleep in his carriage and the others appeared to be struggling
to keep their eyes open and their knees from buckling.
Photo: Thomas John Gibbons Images
The atmosphere outside the de Young was festive and a
bit surreal. By midnight the roads leading to the museum were clogged
with cars and bicycles Ė not to mention the occasional unicycle,
high-wheel and other forms of conveyanceóand the line of nocturnal museum-goers snaked
a quarter-mile down Tea Garden Drive and around the corner to John
F. Kennedy Drive. People were dancing and singing to boom boxes,
drinking beer and wine, and smoking tobacco and other herbs to pass the time.
And there was a lot of time to passó the wait to get into the museum was
nearly four hours long.
"San Franciscans love to party," said Pam MacDonald, director of
audience development for the de Young, as she patrolled the queue of art
aficionados. "Itís history and they want to be part of it." MacDonald
approached a group of young people passing a joint and issued a stern
warning: "Donít even think about smoking dope in the museum!" The
directive was greeted with a chorus of hoots and jeers.
MacDonald could be forgiven for being a bit grumpy. Like most
of the museumís 200 staff members, she had been working since early
the previous morning and, in the frantic weeks leading up to the grand
opening, sleep had become as rare as the TeotihuacŠn wall murals on display
inside the museum. "All I know is that my feet hurt," she said. The vast
majority of the late-night art mavens appeared to be under 30, and the crowd
seemed to grow younger and rowdier as the hour grew lateróor should we say
earlier. "There was stuff for the old folks all week long," said
MacDonald, referring to a series of pre-opening events for members and
supporters of the museum. "They had their sit-down dinners, their private
tours and curator talks. Tonight," she added, waving at the youthful
horde, "is for the young people."
The multihued, multiethnic crowd, MacDonald noted, was "a tangible
representation of our vision" to expose the de Youngís collections of
American, Pacific and African art to the widest possible audience. "The
building is open, itís porous; itís not opaque. Weíre in the park and park
is in us."
Carolyn Macmillan, deputy director of marketing and communications for
the de Young, had been on her feet since 8 a.m. the previous morning and
the marathon appeared to be taking its toll. "Itís exciting. Itís also
somewhat mind-boggling," she croaked as her bloodshot eyes surveyed the
crowd outside the museum. "I have to do some TV stand-ups at 6 or 7, if I
havenít lost my voice by then. And all the cigarettes donít help," she
"For an event like this we have everybody doing everything," said
Macmillan, who was wearing a baseball cap, baggy white khakis and
sneakers. "Iím a senior staff member and Iíve been picking up trash all
night long. The head of security brought in his sleeping bag. Someone in
accounting has been helping with crowd control."
As the night wore on some people were devising
creative schemes to cut the line. Scores were seen scampering over a fence
and into the museum through an unguarded exit. A group of about 20 people
claimed they were covering the event for The New York Times
, but they had apparently
forgotten to bring their press credentials and were unceremoniously
dispatched to the end of the line. Earlier in the evening, Macmillan got a
call from someone representing a group called the Sisters of Isis who said
300 members were on their way to the museum and demanded dispensation from
the line. "I have no idea who they are," Macmillan said with a shrug.
Patty Lacson, the de Youngís administrator, stood in the entry
courtyard wearily monitoring the scene. "The 4:30 crowd is better than the
3:30 crowd," she said ruefully. "People have sobered up, or maybe theyíve
just run out of pot." The marathon opening was bittersweet for Lacson, who
was the project manager for the museumís construction. "Iíve been working
on this for 10 years. Itís my baby and people have been a little rough
with my baby tonight."
Despite the carnival-like atmosphere, Lacson said the museum staff had
not encountered any major problems. "There were some pretty drunk people
and we had to have the cops take them out, but that was about it," she
said. Even so, she acknowledged, the sight of throngs of bleary-eyed,
blotto young people wandering around priceless works of art made for some
Photo: Thomas John Gibbons Images
At 5 a.m. outside the museum entrance, a slightly built man named Zack
with a scraggly black beard and a sea-green scarf wrapped around his neck
was playing Hungarian wedding songs on an accordion as a half a dozen
people danced deliriously around him. A young man with Art Garfunkel
hair and a shocking-pink boa draped around his shoulders was waltzing with
a blond-haired woman in a wide-rimmed white hat. Another man attempted
some squatting kicks in the style of a Russian folk dancer but kept
The guards were admitting groups of 20 or 30 people at a time and as
the liberated platoons scurried into the entry courtyard, there were
whoops and trills of delight. One girl waved her arms like a cheerleader
as she exultantly skipped past the guards.
Inside the museum, glassy-eyed visitors wandered around, many of them
seemingly too dazed to appreciate the de Youngís treasures. Larry Kaplun,
a 24-year-old clerk at a San Francisco bookstore, had arrived at the park
with three friends around midnight but didnít get inside the museum until
nearly 4 a.m. They passed the time in line by drinking beer, playing
musical chairs and chatting with strangers. "We tried to start waves but
people werenít into it," he said. Kaplun said he was shocked to find so
many people had turned out. "I thought it would be empty. I mean who comes
to a museum in the middle of the night?" Kaplun said he probably wouldnít
have come if he had known how long the wait was going to be, but he had no
regrets. "It was really exciting. There was so much energy out there."
Kaplun had planned to spend a quiet night contemplating the de Youngís
bold new architecture. "I thought it would be really tranquil and I could
do some writing and reflecting. But itís completely opposite of what I
expected." Now that he was finally inside, what did he think of the new
museum? "I havenít seen much but Iím really impressed so far. Itís
In the upstairs galleries visitors were reposing on every available
flat surface. A woman with a tangle of red, blue and brown streaked hair
was sprawled on a trapezoidal-shaped wooden bench. A guard politely
reminded her that sleeping was not allowed in the museum.
The creativity of the costumes worn by the de
Youngís visitors rivaled anything on the museumís walls. One man in a
flouncey plum-colored outfit looked like a member of Louis XIVís court.
Another man, appearing as if he had just rolled out of bed, was wearing a
purple terry cloth robe over brown-and-white checked pants. A young woman
was dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz
in a blue-checked dress with sparkling ruby-colored
Cole Church, a 22-year-old art student at San Francisco State, was
decked out in a flowing strawberry-blond wig, six-inch-long
peacock-feather eyelashes, a beige dirndl dress and a fake fur stole. A
woman with a red clown nose wore a lime-green hooded fake fur jacket over
a fluffy, layered yellow dress and pointy beige boots. Another man was
slouching around the galleries in thigh-high black boots and a long
fur-collared white coat as he murmured into his cell phone.
By 6 a.m. the line outside the museum had vanished. The plaza in front
of the de Youngís copper-faÁade was littered with food wrappers, cigarette
butts, and beer and wine bottles. As birds began to chirp and the sky
edged from midnight blue to gray, scores of people knelt in a circle for a
Maya Blessing Ceremony. A man in a hooded jacket recited a prayer in
Spanish as fragrant plumes of incense wafted through the crisp
As the crowd dispersed, a woman shuffling away from the museum with
some friends shouted out a suggestion: "We need hot tubs, baby!"
de Young Museum
Peter Kupfer is a former editor on the
National / Foreign desk at The San Francisco Chronicle. His
freelance articles on the arts, travel and technology have appeared in
The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Asian Art News and other publications.