The first thing you’ll notice about the recently renovated Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, or if that’s too much of a mouthful, BAMPFA, (pronounced “Bam- pee-eff-aye" — they’re particular about that) is the fact that the building is being attacked by an enormous, stainless-steel monster.
There is certainly something to be said for art museums whose exteriors are works of art in and of themselves, and BAMPFA falls particularly well into this category. The original building served as the University of California, Berkeley’s printing plant; it was built in 1939 and maintains much of its original form, with a notable addition.
Reminiscent of a folding plate camera from the early twentieth century, the 2016 renovation contorts around the primary structure with an outdoor movie screen on one side and whittling to a sharp, tapered point on the other.
This screen is massive, worthy of a drive-in or the local AMC theater, but instead of catching a glance of the latest superhero flick, it serves as a video gallery of selected documentary works, playing 24 hours a day.
It is this pairing of the very old and the very new that sets the tone for what lies within, and even what the museum stands for as a whole. It is part of an old (at least in California terms) university with a rich academic tradition, but also one of weirdness, of one-off. The city of Berkeley is known as a haven for the other, those who have failed to make the cut in Pittsburgh and Saint Louis and Denver and have washed ashore in this unlikely valley.
Practically every aspect of Berkeley Art Museum is a visual feast: the stairwell is a shocking shade of bright red, there’s a study area with couch-like geometric shapes that can be moved around like a mammoth set of Legos, even the gift shop is another gallery full of quirky local creations. Something rather unexpected is waiting around every turn. You think you’ve reached the end of a hallway when suddenly you’re faced with a Basquiat or a bookshelf.
California’s Bay Area is notorious for its sky-high rents, and BAMPFA is as aware of this as any institution. They refuse to waste an inch of space.
There are many tricks they use to circumvent this creative restriction. First, natural lighting is used whenever possible. The entrance side of the building is covered in glass windows, which makes you feel like you’re sharing the room with the colorful street outside. Some of the galleries are rather small, but the artwork is spread out enough that they never feel cramped; there is plenty of room to enjoy the viewing experience.
After descending to the bottom floor of BAMPFA and following the winding gray ramps to what feels like a forgotten corner, another cavernous gallery appears. Both of the temporary exhibition rooms on the ground floor are made for contemplative observation. They are usually decorated with smaller works of art, spread out across the entire space, giving you plenty of space to appreciate the small details of the carefully curated pieces.
Okay, so we’ve gone over the “BAM,” but what about the “PFA”? Do you like Studio Ghibli? Marlon Brando, maybe? How about classic Chinese films? The Barbro Osher Theater is showing something for virtually every taste. There are selections of rare films from the Archive’s 16,000 item collection. Every Saturday afternoon there is a family-friendly showing, usually a cinematographic and entertaining treat; past screening have included fare from Africa, Iran, and, of course, Hollywood.
The theater's high ceiling evokes a lofty place of worship. In a sense, the room is a secular shrine to the moving artwork of cinema. It has two hundred and thirty-two seats and is outfitted with state of the art movie projectors and an unbelievable sound system to boot. Virtually everything in the entire theater is gray, giving a sense of sensory deprivation that allows you to place your full attention on the massive screen.
The archive's selection of artistic and indie films, called Alternative Visions, would impress even the staunchest critic. Again, the selection is varied in format, style, and subject matter. If its aesthetic virtues alone are not enough to get you to BAMPFA, there is always something else going on in its asymmetric halls.
Four days a week they hold the Art Lab, in which a massive number of art supplies (including sketch paper, watercolors, collage, rubber stamps, colored pencils, glitter glue and so much more) is put out for the enjoyment of both the young and the old. In fact, it is not uncommon to see small groups of college students collaborating with middle-aged tourists and their decidedly vocal children on afternoon-long projects. The Lab’s purpose appears to be the cultivation of community among the museum’s decidedly varied clientele.
The Art Lab is also where you can obtain a free poster adorned with the work of local artists. These are excellent additions to living rooms, dorm walls, or that blank space just above your toilet.
Just past the stairs leading to the upper floors lies the museum’s in-house library. After all, the museum is a part of UC Berkeley, and it simply would not be complete without the addition of the university’s collection of film-related works. The back wall has screenwriting how-tos from as far back as the 1920s, along with works from every obscure and mainstream trend in filmmaking since the Lumière brothers.
BAMPFA also houses Café Babette, a small coffee shop/restaurant on the third floor of the building. The space is somewhat claustrophobic, but the award-winning meals are more than worth the momentary discomfort. The menus are filled with local and seasonal fare, and this room is easily another gallery in the museum, every plate an eatable masterpiece.
Of all Berkeley’s excellent study spaces, this must be one of the best. The café sits on a balcony above the main gallery and juts out above lively Center Street. You can pull up a chair and watch enthusiastic groups of pedestrians filter by on the street below you while sipping a cup of coffee from a local roaster.