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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.
"The kids 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 added.

"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 anxious moments.

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 tipping over.

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 gorgeous."

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 high heels.

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 early-morning air.

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

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