A Sneak Peek with Max Hollein

Will 2018 be the Fine Art Museums’ most exciting year yet?

By Damion Matthews

A man in motion, Max Hollein shows no signs of fatigue as he approaches his second year as director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. And what a year it will be!

When I recently caught up with him at the de Young Museum, he had just flown in from a whirlwind trip to London, where he attended the Frieze Art Fair, met with world-famous art-world figures and toured several private collections in preparation for next summer’s major Pre-Raphaelite exhibit, arriving home just in time to install the Legion of Honor’s “Klimt & Rodin,” which runs through January 28.

Forever on the go, it’s perhaps fitting, then, that when not working he’s likely to be taking long walks through San Francisco.

“It’s such a rich cultural offering that you get here, in such an easily approachable way,” he says. “I want to take full advantage of that.”

Hollein’s new familiarity with the city, straight from the streets as it were, could prove useful in his role overseeing Northern California’s largest public arts institution. Having moved here from Frankfurt over a year ago with wife, Nina, and their three children, he’s the fifth man to take on the task since the de Young and Legion of Honor merged 45 years ago.

His challenges are plenty: Improve its stature as a world-class institution, while engaging with the needs of the local community. Become more relevant to young people who look for art on Instagram, not the museum wall, and might be more inclined to visit SFMOMA with its Insta-bait Pop Art collections. And show our new generation of billionaire business leaders the necessity of funding the arts.

In addressing these issues, contemporary art has been of key concern for Hollein (son of postmodern architect Hans Hollein) since starting the job in June 2016, after leading three German museums simultaneously, the Schirn Kunsthalle, Städel Museum and the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection. One of his first actions was to hire Claudia Schmuckli, director of the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston, to run the museums’ new Contemporary Art Program.

“I’ve felt that both the Legion of Honor and the de Young have a certain kind of responsibility to also have a voice in the contemporary art world,” he tells the Gazette, describing the Legion as being built on the classical model, yet open for enrichment from new perspectives. “That’s obviously not the main topic for them, but it’s one that’s really relevant and important.”

Next month begins their latest exploration into the contemporary realm with commissions by the art collective DIS and Lynn Hershman Leeson. Leeson’s “VertiGhost,” opening December 16, might be the perfect example of how to integrate experimental new pieces with the revered work of centuries-old masters in a creative way that underscores the power of both.

Playful yet haunting, it’s a multi-dimensional 3D installation that invites museum-goers’ involvement, using an Amedeo Modigliani painting, a film by Leeson, a prop from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (filmed at the Legion), a Go Pro Camera and a live digital feed of the whole thing. Complicated, interesting and social media-worthy, it will be a sensation. No word, yet, on whether Kim Novak herself will make an appearance (we dream!).

That’s followed by Julian Schnabel’s site-specific exhibit at the Legion of Honor in April, which is sure to draw international attention. Art insiders’ chatter is already calling it the start of a possible “renaissance” for the controversial artist.

“I’ve known him for a long time and really like his work. He’s a somewhat debated figure in the art world, but I think he’s most certainly one of the most important and challenging painters of his time,” says Hollein, who curated a Schnabel retrospective in 2004, early in his tenure as director of Frankfurt’s Schirn Kunsthalle.

Surprisingly, most of the exhibit will be outdoors, inspired by the work having been painted outside at the artist’s Montauk studio. “Paintings will be exposed to the San Francisco sun, fog and possibly rain,” Hollein says. Completely new, large-scale pieces will dominate the Court of Honor, with work from the last two decades shown in the Rodin galleries.

Perhaps 2018’s biggest challenge will come by way of “The Fashion of Islam,” opening at the de Young in the fall. The idea came to Hollein the moment he accepted the position. He had been eager to work with the Fine Arts Museums’ impressive costumes and textiles collection.

On visits to Tehran, Istanbul and elsewhere in the Muslim world, he noticed how vibrant the Islamic fashion scene is, with many cutting-edge designers, and Vogue even publishing an Arabian edition. He felt it worthy of scholarly attention. “It’s a powerful means of expression as well as big business,” he says. “And on the other hand, it’s connected to a cultural history and a current debate that is complex.” The exhibition will show pieces both from Western haute couture houses and from Islamic culture itself.

Its announcement immediately launched media headlines across America’s tense political and cultural spectrum, from the New York Times and Breitbart to lesser-known entities such as “Jihad Watch.” Knowing little of Hollein’s plans, some critics immediately objected, calling it “the glamorization of oppression,” and “an effort to make Sharia law fashionable.”

That’s not Hollein’s intent. “Exhibitions of this kind will be readable on various levels. If you want to just see a fashion show with extraordinarily beautiful dresses, you will just see that. Obviously, this exhibition goes way deeper and talks about other elements that are connected to the history, social culture, policy and the political questions around it. Exhibitions should be multilayered, making it obvious that art and its perception is always connected to a broader context. I think that’s exactly what exhibitions should do,” he says, adding: “That’s exactly what a museum is all about.


Planning Ahead

What to look forward to at the Fine Art Museums this coming year:

Legion of Honor

Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity. October 28, 2017 to January 7, 2018.
Lynn Hershman Leeson: VertiGhost. December 16, 2017 to March 25, 2018.
Casanova: The Seduction of Europe. February 10 to May 20, 2018.
Julian Schnabel: April 21 to August 5, 2018.
Mastering the Masters: The Pre-Raphaelites and their Sources of Inspiration. June 30 to September 30, 2018.

de Young Museum

Genre-Nonconforming: The DIS Edutainment Network. December 2, 2017 to April 29, 2018.
Bouquets to Art: The Annual Flower Extravangaza. March 13, 2018 to March 18, 2018.
Cult of the Machine: Over 100 masterworks of American Precisionism. March 24 to
August 12, 2018.
Fans of the Eighteenth Century: March 31, 2018.
The Fashion of Islam: September 22, 2018 to January 6, 2019.
(Dates subject to change.)

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