Do You Know the Way to San Jose?

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I don’t think too many people consider San Jose a cultural landmark.  My impression of the city comes mostly from San Francisco urbanites complaining about their commute to and fro.  Though it’s the third-largest city in California, and a huge hub for industry in the Silicon Valley, I kind of assumed it sucked.  I envisioned strip malls and Applebee’s, not galleries and museums.  So when our Director of Business Development, Carolyn and I ventured across the water to pay a visit to the San Jose Museum of Art, my expectations were low.  Lucky for me, it was an afternoon all about changing perspectives.

First of all, I clearly had no idea what I was talking about, because there is tons of art in San Jose! It starts with a glimpse of the airport from the freeway where they’ve art-ified the parking structure with an amazing tile mosaic that is made to look like hands reaching up towards the sunny (OK, somewhat smoggy) California sky. 


“Hands” by Christian Moeller lends some culture to the parking structure at the San Jose Airport.

You exit off Park Avenue, which should make rich elitists feel right at home.  We wound through the surprisingly charming downtown and pull up to the plaza where the museum stands, across from a gorgeous park with fountains and plenty of shady knolls to plop down and people-watch.  Carolyn informs me that if you get your timing right you can laugh at a group who frequents the park in the mornings to do “extreme aerobics.” 

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The fountain in Plaza de Cesar Chavez, across from the museum, is great for people watching.

The museum itself is a nice enough contemporary building and you can’t miss it, which I appreciate as a directionally challenged individual. There’s a huge banner across the front and also a beautiful sculpture at the base of the entrance so you know you’re at the right place.  Figure Holding the Sun by artist Italo Scange looks like a Picasso painting come to life, and in the midst of a balmy breeze we felt like imitating the piece, throwing our hands up and saying “Thank you, Sun!.”


Sunny vibes at the SJMA.

In the foyer of the museum, we’re met with sculptural works by two artists that we love.  They’ve hung three Dale Chihuly chandeliers from the ceiling and the bright light that streams in from the huge windows illuminates the twisting glass and their vivid depths of color.   We walk up to the balcony to get a closer look and chat about what they remind us of.  Jellyfish? Alien life forms? The red one reminds me of my own scarlett-hued, unbrushed hair.

Custom Dale Chihuly works above the ticket booth.

There’s not always a ton from the permanent collection on view, but even with the few pieces displayed, it’s well worth the trip.  The standout piece from the exhibition we saw, which had the theme of “perspective,” was an amazingly realistic painting called “Shopping Mall” - which was a birds-eye view of the Santa Monica Promenade. The artist, James Doolin, spent years studying the rooftops of the Southern California neighborhood, even taking helicopter trips above the city to ensure his representation was accurate. 

They also had a great display of his sketches and calculations which gives you a bit of an idea of the immense amount of work that went into the thing.  The painting was positioned at the top of the stairs, adding to the sense of vertigo.  We very respectfully played “Where’s Waldo,” trying to find the funniest 1970s-style outfits on the ant-sized pedestrians that walked his painted streets.


What a seagull might see in Santa Monica circa 1973.

In the basement, there were a bunch of other works that fit the theme of “shifting perspectives,”  including a lovely Edward Hopper sketch of (what else?) a lonely city corner at night. 

Night Shadow

Edward Hopper’s “Night Shadow,” 1921.

For the kiddos, they had a drawing station with fun prompts like, “Draw a playground from an ant’s perspective.” 

Upstairs was a great temporary exhibit on food practices with lots of wacky contemporary art.  We pondered it on a bench swing with a view and came to the conclusion that above all, it made us hungry.


A nice older gentleman offered to take our picture, but had a little trouble with the iPhone lens…

Down we go to the museum café, which we can’t recommend enough.  Reasonably priced, fresh organic food that’s located in a repurposed old church attached to the museum.  Our salads were delicious and it’s a nice spot to overlook the pavilion and plan your next move.  We decided to check out a contemporary gallery about a mile from the museum called the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art. That was also conveniently located next to the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles where we forewent the entrance fee but perused their shop of hippy handicrafts and took in an adorably weird exhibition of handmade potholders in the shape of things. 

With all my misconceptions about San Jose, we left the museum inspired to take the exhibition’s idea of shifting your perspective into our everyday lives and were rewarded for our explorations.  You never know the amazing things you might find if you just take the time to look a little differently…and take a trip outside your comfort zone.  

By Angelica Jardini

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Angelica Jardini

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