When San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Director Neal Benezra came aboard in 2002, the expectations of a museum’s role in the community were very different. Today, as the museum embarks on an international search to replace Benezra, who announced his retirement earlier this year after nearly two decades in the position, all eyes are on SFMOMA. The Gazette recently checked in with artists, academics, curators and critics from various corners of the art world, posing the question: With Neal Benezra’s imminent departure from SFMOMA after 19 years at the helm, what should the museum be looking for in its next leader?
Correspondent for The Art Newspaper; former San Francisco Chronicle art critic
“Neal will be a hard act to follow because of his adroit navigation of SFMOMA through upheavals such as the 2007–08 economic crisis, and its closure during its risky — but successful — expansion, and because of his subdued, dignified public profile. Not that there weren’t missteps during his tenure. (For example, I think he and the board should have insisted on cherry-picking of the Fisher Collection before accepting the terms of its ongoing presentation.) But Neal (and his staff and board) certainly elevated the institution’s stature nationally and internationally. His background as scholar and curator was an indispensable asset when he arrived, but the landscape of society and public opinion changed dramatically during his nearly two decades on duty. His successor must carry out a rethinking, perhaps already begun, of the institution’s role in a culture newly awakened to issues of social and economic injustice, and therefore to issues of access — admission, audience cultivation, education and reweighting of the art history that its activity promotes. SFMOMA’s expansion (to say nothing of its recent staff turmoil) may have cost it some nimbleness in these regards. But Neal’s successor will likely need a new kind of administrative dexterity to assume his role. And an independent vision of modern art’s global and local past, and of their future histories, will unquestionably be a necessary job qualification.”
Julie Rodrigues Widholm
Director of Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive
“What SFMOMA needs in its next director is what every museum needs now: someone with a clear sense of who the museum serves; a strong vision for equity and inclusion; an ability to navigate uncertainty, a financial crisis, the internal and external calls for racial justice; and a willingness to listen and take action to change museums so they are relevant and sustainable for generations to come.”
Former art museum director; San Francisco Chronicle art critic 2016–2020
“SFMOMA must make an iron-clad commitment to transparency in all its interactions with the public it exists to serve. That will be a very tall order for any new leader, at a place where secrecy in its operations and policies has somehow come to be seen as a higher priority than its core mission of service. The museum has fabulous resources, from a top-notch staff to a collection and building that are the envy of institutions the world over. The job of the new director will be to convince the museum’s audience — and its board — that she or he knows such riches are meant to be shared.”
Rachel Teagle, Ph.D.
Founding director of the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art
“I believe SFMOMA has achieved the status of a national and international leader in the museum field; they no longer need to be looking up to other museums for inspiration. Since the days of Jack Lane, SFMOMA built its reputation looking to models in Europe and the East Coast. I think that was a necessary part of SFMOMA’s journey and they’ve achieved what they set out to do some 30 years ago. Now, at the top of their game, they need to look around them to see what California artists have to offer. They are in the position to raise up so many voices. By focusing their attention on our community, they become even more effective leaders. SFMOMA has an opportunity to be a true leader in the field if they bring in a new director who’s not only an excellent curator and excellent art historian, but also someone who has a proven track record of engaging communities and doing the face-to-face work of community development. Community building is one-on-one, having coffee with people — truly face-to-face work. Anything abstract, anything delegated, doesn’t work. You have to have a leader who is in your community.”
“Art and politics aside, I’d like to see a buffet table of really good food being a permanent thing in that foyer entrance after you pay. The board of the museum is full of billionaires who have had a wonderful year this year when everyone else is starving. They should pay for this — who’s going to not like that idea? The other thing, the museum has a pretty good history with coffee (they had Blue Bottle running their coffee area for a while, and Sightglass). Coffee is historically a stimulant for intelligent conversation and the coffee should be free — and there should be more tables around the place.”
David A. Ross
Chair, MFA Art Practice Department, School of Visual Arts; former SFMOMA director, 1998–2001
“SFMOMA is a museum that will continue to change as any museum committed to being a museum of the art of our time will change. I will be fascinated to see how they’re managing the search, the short list they come up with, and who they settle upon. I have great respect for Neal and for what he had to do, and, in fact, great respect for all of my colleagues who are still working as directors — especially at contemporary art museums. Many art museum professionals and trustees are going through a really important and critically difficult process of reassessing what the job of an art museum is. Simply put, the museum is an institution whose business is to serve a wide range of communities as a site for the contest of ideas and values. I do believe the museum has begun the complex path of moving forward and rethinking what its job is. After all, if artists today are rethinking what their jobs are individually and collectively, then any institution — museum or art school — has to do the same. Yet it is art museums who have to deal with how they rethink how they represent the story of art history and how that story reflects, in many ways, the lies about American and world history that we were fed in days past.”
Independent curator and associate professor of Asian American Studies at UC Davis
“I hope that the next director will be committed to supporting manifold ways of dismantling and reenvisioning what we currently know as the ‘museum.’ SFMOMA needs a museum director with vision, imagination and a backbone; who is fearless, financially savvy and generous and not beholden to corporate trustees and profit, the canon and the market. A museum director of the 21st century can no longer approach the museum as a sacred artifact, a private warehouse for rich collectors, a site of blockbuster entertainment, a tourist destination — but rather, figures it as an open-ended democratic assemblage that constantly evolves, a place of discovery and creative learning, apart from its 19th century pedagogical civilizing mandate. Talented and visionary artists are leaving the Bay Area in droves because the cost of living here is so expensive. It would be amazing if the museum hosted not only the curation of exhibitions of emerging and underrecognized artists and challenging thematic exhibitions, but also supported the making of art — a creative sanctuary for local and global artists to thrive and experiment collaboratively.
Assistant professor of art history, theory and criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago; scholar-in-residence, Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, and curator of Arnold Joseph Kemp: I would survive. I could survive. I should survive.
“I believe SFMOMA should destroy the current status quo of leadership models to a more radical presentation of what leadership looks like. What might it mean to have a collective run the institution? A group of radical artists, curators and administrators of color who could work in the spirit of collectivity revolutionized in the Bay Area in the 1960s and beyond? Instead of thinking of one new leader, I think the museum should dismantle that model and put in its place something radically democratic, collective and revolutionary.”