Museum of Performance and Design: The Next Chapter

By Heather Desaulniers


Adjacent to the opulence and grandeur of the War Memorial Opera House and Davies Symphony Hall lies a quiet, hidden jewel in San Francisco’s performing arts crown–the Museum of Performance and Design. Housed in the Veterans Building, this one-of-a-kind institution features permanent collections and a diverse research library along with interactive exhibitions, artist conversations and special events. These expansive resources come together in pursuit of preservation, performing arts education and public participation. The Museum of Performance and Design is alive with change; poised to leap forward. It is catapulting into the future with creativity and vigor, tackling challenges head-on, debuting cutting-edge programs, and re-defining artistic interaction.

The Museum of Performance and Design’s story dates back almost seventy years and begins with one man: San Francisco Ballet dancer and costume designer Russell Hartley. In the 1940s, Hartley began amassing and cataloging his own personal collection of dance artifacts; it grew quickly and eventually led to the establishment of the San Francisco Dance Archives. Over the next six decades, this organization would expand in size and transform in vision to include multiple genres and disciplines alongside dance. The addition of music, theatrical design and other performance arts led to a significant growth in the already substantial reference materials, and the need for new, larger spaces. And, after inhabiting a number of different locations in San Francisco, the collection finally settled into its current home back in 1999. Different organizational titles have also been used throughout the years to reflect the archives’ evolving landscape with the most recent name change in 2007. In that year, what had been known as the San Francisco Performing Arts Library became the Museum of Performance and Design (MPD). Anyone who visits the Museum can attest that it is a special place–a living record of Northern California’s performing arts, initiated more than a half century ago by one man’s unwavering passion and drive.

The combination of past, present and future is a nuanced balance for any arts organization and the Museum of Performance and Design manages this challenge well. Today’s Museum still bears the fruit of Hartley’s labor; his collecting and categorizing spirit living on into the twenty-first century. MPD now boasts an impressive collection of more than three and a half million items including sheet music, keepsakes, models, photographs, records, interviews, videos, remnants, books, maquettes, objet d’arts, and playbills. The permanent exhibitions are displayed around the perimeter of the building’s fourth floor, taking visitors on a stroll through time, genre and geographic location (though the Museum certainly has a San Francisco/Bay Area focus, these curated installations also speak to the more global aspects of the collection). Current showings include: ‘Selections from The Bob Johnson Sheet Music Collection’, ‘Designing Wagner’s Ring: An Aesthetic/Historic Overview,’ ‘Stars of the Early San Francisco Stage,’ ‘Toy Theatres–Worlds in Miniature,’ ‘Maestro! Photographic Portraits by Tom Zimberhoff,’ and ‘Dance in California: 150 Years of Innovation.’

A set of photos, posters and memorabilia, ‘Dance in California: 150 Years of Innovation’ chronicles the historic lineage and choreographic diversity that dance in our state is famous for. A who’s who of dance, the exhibit highlights individuals, companies, programs and festivals that have shaped and contributed to the West Coast dance scene over the past century and a half. Two items jump off the walls as being particularly unique. First is an early copy of “Impulse”. What began as a set of student dance writings eventually grew into an esteemed annual performance studies journal. This periodical represents that dance is and was about more than just performance; dancers, choreographers and practitioners seeking dialog, conversation and debate in an effort to discuss issues and clarify purpose. Second is a score of Anna Halprin’s In the Mountain/On the Mountain from 1981. Demonstrating the energy and spirit that exists in dance notation, this particular artifact not only explains the order, movement and trajectory of Halprin’s dance, but also serves as a dynamic record of a single performance–freezing one moment for eternity.

While the past and present surely must be given their due, the true thrill of any institution lies in its future. As we approach the mid-point of 2012, the Museum of Performance and Design finds itself in an exciting place of transition. At the beginning of April they welcomed a new Executive Director, former San Francisco Ballet Principal Dancer Muriel Maffre, and this December, they will once again be moving to a new home. These changes bring with them a renewed energy and limitless opportunities as the Museum contemplates its creative future.

With a wealth of performance and museum expertise, Muriel Maffre is the perfect candidate to take the helm at the Museum of Performance and Design. After retiring in 2007 from a famed seventeen-year career with the San Francisco Ballet, Maffre returned to graduate school and earned a Master’s Degree in Museum Studies, while still continuing a number of artistic projects on the side. In Maffre, the Museum of Performance and Design has found innovative enthusiasm and visionary outlook–necessary ingredients for every arts organization as they look to the next chapter. And for the Maffre, her role as Executive Director of the Museum of Performance and Design brings together two passions: the performing arts and the museum. Coming into an existing institution as the new head of staff requires a combination of respect, mindfulness and gumption, all of which Maffre has in spades. She relates that the Executive Director of any museum must embody “leadership, vision and communication, honoring what is already in place yet committed to moving forward.”

Maffre explains that she has long been fascinated with the concept of museum–what it represents, what it can offer and what it can cultivate. She sees the museum sharing many characteristics with the theater, noting that, “both spaces are incubators of new ideas; active laboratories where artist and audience meet in an ongoing conversation–gathering information from both points of view, passing and interpreting knowledge.” The creation of this interdependent relationship has such potential for “transformative experiences,” something that Maffre seeks in all aspects of her work and continues to pursue at the Museum of Performance and Design. Still a percolating idea, she eventually hopes to create a dedicated studio at MPD “to host processes of the performing arts.” Here, visitors may encounter a rehearsal, a work-in-progress, or even a full performance. What a privilege to share in a fleeting artistic moment, whether it be the sewing of a costume or the staging of a choreographed variation.

With the connection of performer and observer as one of her primary goals, Maffre knows that social media must also be part of the picture. In today’s era, artistic participation happens both in person and online. To that end, she has set up a computer station in the main lobby of the Museum so that visitors can interact with the art on multiple levels: visually, physically and technologically.

Maffre’s view of museum preservation is fascinating; she holds a holistic and total understanding of the concept. Though the preservation of past work is an obvious task for any museum, she views it as only one part of a much bigger puzzle: “the museum must not be a passive recipient of ideas; preservation is about much more than the history–it is also about new ideas and participation in the moment.”

The upcoming “Body In-Sight: Action Drawings from the Dance Studio” personifies this unique spirit of preservation, by working to preserve both present work and that which is otherwise impermanent. Opening on Friday, July 13, “Body In-Sight” will feature a series of liquid pencil drawings that were made by dancers while completing a ballet barre. After dipping their toes in liquid pencil material, the dancers cycled through the familiar set of daily exercises from plies to frappes to grand battements, while their feet simultaneously painted a portrait of their journey. These final pictures bear cumulative markings in different directions and with various intensities. For Maffre, these art pieces are “studies of dance in practice, a profound statement of similarity; a representation of a routine that is universal to ballet.”

Later in July, “Body In-Sight” will hold its second event as the Museum of Performance and Design travels to The Annex (an off-site location). As part of a public viewing, these live action drawings will be created in real time by three different dancers. Maffre categorizes this event as a “happening,” where some viewers will arrive specifically to witness the art performance and others will simply happen upon it as they go about their everyday activities. Once the drawings are complete, the crowd is encouraged to travel back to the MPD, where the sketches will be auctioned off to benefit the Museum.

For its final installment, “Body In-Sight” will return to The Annex in August for a kids camp. An interdisciplinary experience, this afternoon brings percussion, dance and visual art together all for a child’s sensibility. As Maffre says, this camp is about “engaging kids, building confidence, all while learning to draw the dancing figure.” “Body In-Sight” is a comprehensive offering by the Museum, incorporating those integral elements of education, public engagement and live performance in a single program.

The Museum’s upcoming move in December will be a huge undertaking–finding a suitable home is a challenge all in itself, and then of course comes the logistical details in transporting the massive collection. During the re-location period, the Museum will have on-going events at various off-site locations.

Everyone deals with change differently. For some, it is frightening and difficult, and for others vibrant and energizing. Maffre definitely fits into the latter category, opting to see this move as an opportunity for the Museum of Performance and Design. A chance has been afforded to re-focus resources, look critically at the MPD’s mission, and most important, consider how the Museum can “connect locally but make the work broadly relevant.”

Make the Museum of Performance and Design one of your summer destinations and experience a dynamic history of the performing arts. The Museum is located in San Francisco’s Veteran’s Building (401 Van Ness Avenue, Fourth Floor, Suite 402). Exhibitions are open Wednesday-Saturday between 11am and 5pm. The Research Library is open on Wednesdays and the last Saturday of each month from 1-5pm, or by calling 415-255-4800, extension *814 for an appointment. Further information can be found on the Museum’s website:, by email:, or by phone: 415-255-4800.

Body In Sight Events
Exhibition of Opening
Body In-Sight: Action Drawings from the Dance Studio
MPD, Friday, July 13, 7-9pm

Happening & Benefit Auction
In conjunction with Body In-Sight
Live action drawings by three dancers at the barre
MPD & The Annex, Saturday, July 28, 4-8pm

Kids Art Camp (ages 8-12)
In conjunction with Body In-Sight:
Drawing the Dancing Figure with live percussion
The Annex, Saturday, August 25, 2-4pm

Heather Desaulniers is a freelance writer, critic and dance historian based in Oakland. She is the SF/Bay Area columnist for and formerly the Associate Editor of Dance for Bourgeon online. Ms. Desaulniers is currently working on a book chronicling the work of American modern dance choreographer, Sophie Maslow.

Heather Desaulniers is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly, and contributes to several other dance-focused publications, including formerly to DanceTabs.