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Essay: From Mom To Museum Volunteer

by Pamela Hornik

Pamela Hornik is an arts patron and collector. She volunteers at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center — where she serves on the Director’s Advisory Board and is an ambassador for its 2022 Museums by Moonlight gala — as well as the neighboring Anderson Collection. (The Eamon Ore-Giron work behind her is part of a current Anderson show and on loan from the Horniks.) | Photo courtesy of Darrow Hornik

Getting involved in the local art community gave me a sense of purpose — and a sense of identity.

I still have my original Cantor Arts Center I.D. badge. In the 13 years since it was issued, a lot has changed — beyond just my hairstyle, which was longer and lighter back then. I remember placing the badge around my neck for the first time and my husband, David, snapping a photo of me before I walked out the door and drove the five minutes to the museum on the Stanford campus.

It was my first day as a volunteer at the Cantor. I didn’t realize how many doors were going to open, just from sitting at the front desk there. It launched me into the art world in a most unexpected way. A huge part of my life now is art, including supporting exhibitions as a patron and supporting new artists as a collector.

As my four kids were growing up — we lived in New York, Half Moon Bay and Walnut Creek before moving to Palo Alto around 2000 — we frequented local museums as a family. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, SFMOMA, de Young, Cantor. I also chaperoned school outings to art institutions, ran the book fair, organized community groups and started a mom’s blog. Everything I did was centered around my children.

During one field trip to the Cantor with my youngest son’s class, I had an aha moment. Standing there in the gallery, amid all those second-graders, I felt more at peace than I had anywhere else. I knew that someday I wanted to work there.

In 2008, I began volunteering at the Cantor every Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., greeting guests and making them feel welcome. With this kind of position, you decide how much you want to get out of it. I wanted to challenge myself to learn about art and serve the public, so it was a perfect fit. One of the most fulfilling things is interacting with folks who aren’t regular museumgoers. I love watching them walk in, survey the neoclassical architecture and have this moment where they take a breath — like, Wow, look where I am.

A huge part of my life now is art, including supporting exhibitions as a patron and supporting new artists as a collector.

The museum played a major role in filling my days with purpose. For so many years, I was David’s wife. Or Julian, Noah, Darrow or Beckett’s mother. My identity and sense of self got lost. As soon as I started volunteering, I carved out that time for me. Suddenly, I wasn’t only someone’s wife or mother. I was a museum volunteer.

Fridays at the Cantor was my ritual. No matter what happened — like people getting upset that Rodin’s Thinker was on loan to another institution — at the end of a shift, I always felt great. When I was still doing afterschool pickup, I darted out of there, fulfilled and refreshed. The kids would ask about my day and were really respectful of the day that I worked. I think they were proud that, Hey, my mom works at a museum. (Two of my sons are now studio artists.)

Once the kids were out of the house, I developed a new Friday afternoon routine: grab a turkey sandwich and a soy latte from the museum cafe and head home, where I’d share the sandwich with our dog, Teddy. When the cafe got rid of its turkey sandwich, I was completely thrown. (It’s funny how the goofiest things become so important.)

A few years later, life would throw everyone a much more significant curveball. Soon after the pandemic hit in March 2020, Stanford shut down. I immediately missed the art and the people, from the visitors to the curators to the maintenance staff. Despite my involvement with various committees and nonprofits, I lost a sense of purpose. I became — and still am — minorly depressed.

Desperate to see art, David and I drove to see murals in San Francisco — Michael Jang’s poster on Clement Street, Chelsea Wong’s imagery in Chinatown. I was on a quest for outdoor art. And then I decided to do something, so that others could also experience art safely.

Last fall, we collaborated with the Palo Alto Art Center on an outdoor installation of Susan O’Malley’s Community Advice posters. We worked with Ali Gass to bring The Facade Project to San Jose’s Institute of Contemporary Art. And as founding members, we’re currently helping Ali launch the Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco in fall 2022.

I’m often asked how I became a collector. It’s from being at the Cantor, immersed in art. The museum did a show 12 or 13 years ago that highlighted works by Stanford professors. I tracked one of them down and bought a piece. That’s where it all started — from this volunteer job.

It’s been nearly two years since I last sat at the front desk of the Cantor. Lately, I’ve been occupying myself with travel (our three sons live in New York) and art-related activities (I recently saw — and loved — Paper Chase: Ten Years of Collecting Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Cantor). I’m hoping to get back to volunteering by the start of the new year.

The pandemic has reinforced how much the Cantor means to me. While it once served as a refuge from the chaos of raising four children, it’s now a part of who I am.

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