Uncovering the Hidden Arts and Culture of Fort Mason

fort mason group

By Marguerite Richards

Fort Mason, the historic waterfront park that’s home to HI San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf, is a maze of winding paths, rows of repurposed military barracks, and grassy knolls. Thanks to its Bay views and urban oasis feel, the park is a favorite escape for locals and visitors alike. But even for the San Franciscans who frequent this place, I recently discovered there’s a bit of mystery to be found. 

Last weekend, while enjoying an unseasonably sunny day in the park, I decided to try scouting three art galleries I’d heard tell of. But rather than relying on GPS (my phone’s navigational system had suddenly quit) or signs (maps posted at the park’s entrance don’t highlight resident organizations), I sought them out the old-fashioned way: by meandering through the waterfront campus in hopes of spotting a friendly face. 

Fort mason centerEventually, I stumbled upon a resident of the nearby Marina neighborhood and asked for their help. 

“Where’s the SF MOMA Gallery?” I ventured. 

“The Museum of Modern Art, you mean? We don’t call it the MOMA here,” he teased. “Anyway, there’s nothing like that anywhere near here.” 

Wrong. Even these seemingly savvy locals didn’t know that Fort Mason is an arts and culture enclave. 

In fact, this little slice of national park land contains a generous sample platter of San Francisco nonprofit organizations of all kinds, all in one place. Thanks to the nearly two dozen resident nonprofits currently renting space here, and the 28 venues of all sizes for occasions as grand as dance performances or as small as intimate classes and talks, visitors to the park aren’t left wanting for events happening here all year long. After honing in on main buildings A through D at the west end of the park on the waterfront, I finally found my way to a few of the places where the public is encouraged to interact with the park’s arts scene. 

Free Galleries & Permanent Exhibits 

Fort Mason galleryBecause of different event schedules and opening hours that vary by organization, Fort Mason’s artsy gems are not easy to navigate. These nonprofits, specializing in everything from Chinese dance to improve theater, occupy studio spaces that are most often closed to the public while volunteers and artists are hard at work prepping for ongoing events. But some organizations frequently open their doors for both free and budget-friendly ticketed activities. Just be sure to check the events calendar before showing up. 

If you happen to be a little more freewheeling and on a tight budget, as I usually am, consider checking out three galleries that are free and open to the public. They are each small enough in scope that you can see all in one afternoon, but the size also lends a friendly appeal: folks here are eager to exchange with visitors; travelers are welcomed with open arms.

In building D, the Mexican Museum’s Fort Mason space contains only a whisper of the museum’s 14,000-work collection, including pre-Hispanic, colonial, Chicano, folk, and popular art. The museum is waiting on a larger, permanent home, which will eventually be built in downtown San Francisco's Yerba Buena arts district. For now, though, it’s still an easy stroll from HI SF Fisherman’s Wharf.

Fort Mason studioThe Museo Italo Americano, founded in 1978, was the first museum in the United States devoted exclusively to Italian and Italian-American art and culture, and houses a permanent collection of paintings, sculptures, and photographs, located in Fort Mason’s Building C.

The SF MOMA Gallery, in building A, is a modern arts gallery with a rotating exhibit, and over 800 artists’ works available for rental to local bigwigs. But a great many of these works, stored on shelves much like library books, can be purused for free at your leisure. 

Drinking & Dining 

The Long Now Foundation is both bar and non-profit center. Its café, called The Interval, is open daily from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., when the venue turns into a mixology-quality cocktail bar open until midnight. Be sure to check their Twitter feed to avoid private event closures and to receive notice of ticketed events (often on Tuesday evenings). The atmosphere is great for hanging out with friends, or for simply taking advantage of the café’s free Wi-Fi: post pictures of this spot for your friends back home and you're sure to make them jealous! 

Readers Bookstore, located in Building C, is a quirky little bookstore with rare reads, collections, prints, and old records playing on the hi-fi. I discovered a hidden café in the back, open daily until 4:00 p.m., and Sunday and Mondays until 3:00. 

Greens is San Francisco’s first gourmet vegetarian restaurant, opened in 1979. Gorgeous floor-to-ceiling windows showcase views of the marina, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Marin Headlands. Greens is by no means economy fare—lunch entrees average $16 and dinner main courses are about $20. But this place is a local institution for vegetarians, and even meat lovers rave about it. 

Back at HI SF Fisherman’s Wharf, Café Franco is a great spot to catch up with friends old and new. The café makes breakfast, lunch, and dinner in-house using local and organic ingredients, and serves local beer and wine to boot.

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If You Go 

Stay at HI San Francisco - Fisherman's Wharf. Housed inside a reimagined army hospital within the grounds of the Fort Mason national park site, the hostel's a little green oasis in the middle of the city. It's also an easy stroll from all of the destinations mentioned in this post!