As any longtime fan of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive can attest, there’s always something new to discover in the museum’s galleries. In the past year alone, a visitor to BAMPFA might have stumbled upon a giant metal “spider” on loan from the New York sculptor Hannah Levy; an indigo fabric tent filled with friendly cat spirits commissioned from the Los Angeles artist Candice Lin; or an impressionistic painting of Batman from the holdings of counterculture icon Frank Moore. But there’s one defining strength of BAMPFA that even its most frequent guests may have yet to truly discover: the museum’s own collection, which contains nearly 25,000 artworks and 18,000 films and videos.
This summer, BAMPFA is unveiling What Has Been and What Could Be: The BAMPFA Collection, featuring important works from the hidden corners of the museum’s holdings. The show will give visitors a flavor of the prodigious collection while offering fresh opportunities for discovery. It will also offer a new perspective on the venerable collection, with a renewed focus on works by women and artists of color. The exhibition is curated by BAMPFA’s executive director Julie Rodrigues Widholm, with senior curator Anthony Graham.
“I came to Berkeley because I believe that art museums, especially academic art museums, can be catalysts for change,” said Widholm. She joined BAMPFA in 2020 with a vision of bringing more of its unique and special holdings to light. “By surfacing the important artworks by historically marginalized voices woven throughout our expansive collection, we’re showing what this change can look like in practice.”
In their inauguration as collection galleries, starting June 7, the entirety of BAMPFA’s lower-level gallery spaces will be dedicated to this yearlong presentation. The exhibition will feature a rotating selection of works grouped into six thematic sections:
- Rad Women: Named after a book series by Bay Area author Kate Schatz, this section highlights important works by women artists across hundreds of years, as well as portraits of iconic women who have changed the course of history. A visitor to the galleries might pause to admire a stately, 17th-century oil painting of the Biblical heroine Judith by Giuseppe Cesari, only to notice that she’s hoisting the severed head of Holofernes, a warlord she slew to save her city from destruction.
- Serenity Now!: Expanding beyond the classic art historical genre of the landscape painting, this section includes both historical and contemporary works that enhance — or in some cases, subtly undermine — our sense of serenity through depictions of the natural world and meditative practices. Audiences seeking solace in this selection will be among the first to discover one of BAMPFA’s newest acquisitions: A 10-foot-tall sculpture of fuzzy, sky-blue prayer beads by Berkeley’s own Masako Miki.
- 1971–1973: This section highlights one of the most important untold stories of BAMPFA’s early collection: In the museum’s first decade, it established a committee dedicated to acquiring works by living Black artists. That effort was supported by a $10,000 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. This section includes Betye Saar’s politically trenchant The Liberation of Aunt Jemima — one of the most in-demand works in BAMPFA’s collection — which reclaims the derogatory caricature of Jemima as a shotgun-toting revolutionary, ready to fight for racial justice.
- It’s Still Life: This selection of works offers a historical survey — and a contemporary twist — on the still-life genre, which first arose in 17th-century Dutch painting as a composition of objects. One of the highlights of this section is a rare cubist still life by Pablo Picasso, which came to BAMPFA on long-term loan from an anonymous Berkeley collector.
- East Bay Ways: The works in this section demonstrate how the East Bay — especially the renowned cultural hubs of Berkeley and Oakland — has become a vibrant center for artistic production, particularly over the past century. Berkeley residents will be especially familiar with one particular work in this section: Romare Bearden’s Final Study for Berkeley – The City and Its People, a colorful 1973 collage that was the inspiration for the city’s present-day logo.
- African American Quilts: To highlight BAMPFA’s historic bequest of 3,000 African American quilts — the largest collection of its kind, which the museum received in 2018 from an East Bay collector — the exhibition will include a rotating space for these magnificent works, with a new quilt on view every few months.
Taken together, these five sections offer a 360-degree perspective on BAMPFA’s kaleidoscopic art collection. Its eclectic strengths include everything from Qing dynasty Chinese paintings to 19th-century photography, conceptual art to African American quilts, and much more. Though the museum frequently features permanent collection works in its rotating exhibition program, What Has Been and What Could Be marks the first time in recent history that a show dedicated to the collection as its own unique resource will go on long-term view.