It’s a dreary, rainy morning in March, and I’m seated in a ninth-floor, all-white conference room at SFMOMA. Suddenly, the museum’s director, Benezra, enters the room with that infectious energy of his. He is gracious, personable and always strikes me as a man on the move, ready for whatever lies ahead.
Benezra was recruited to be SFMOMA’s director in 2002, following a tenure at The Art Institute of Chicago as deputy director and curator of modern and contemporary art. In 2016, he reopened SFMOMA after a three-year, $305 million renovation and expansion—a monumental feat, which tripled the exhibition space and made room for the highly regarded Fisher Collection. The museum became even more of an international art-world draw, but what makes Benezra the proudest? The free admission for young museumgoers (who can be seen snapping selfies in front of the Ellsworth Kellys).
“I grew up in this museum,” he says. “So on my first day here, I just walked around the museum. I literally just walked around the museum and I did pinch myself. There hasn’t been much time for that since.”
My conversation with the multitasking arts impresario runs the gamut from his childhood love affair with SFMOMA to his belief that art should challenge and spark debate to his insomnia and exercise obsession.
Meet Neal Benezra.
This month marks two years since the museum’s reopening. Is it everything you hoped?
When you say two years, it’s hard for me to believe, because the time has just flown by. In our first year, we had more than 1,200,000 visitors. One of the things we’re most pleased about is that we were able to offer free admission to anyone 18 and under. We thought we would have somewhere in the neighborhood of 40,000 young people come in. We had 190,000!
That’s fantastic, and it bodes well for the future. What do you attribute the success to?
Our program is dynamic for a young audience, and our online presence—all of our digital outreach—is really good, perhaps best-in-class in the United States. We had this wonderful exhibit called Soundtracks, which was an exhibition almost without art objects. It was all about sound and immersive experience, which confirms our research that younger people don’t necessarily just want to stand in front of a painting on a wall.
I know you are particularly interested in exposing young people to the arts. Why do you think this is so important, aside from the obvious reason of attracting future members to the museum?
Of course it’s our future, but one of the things I’m very passionate about is that our museum is not just for the art world. We need to be for a large public, a demographically diverse public, a young public. I think sometimes contemporary museums make the mistake of programming just for the art world. That’s important, but we have to engage the public, especially here in San Francisco where we have such a diverse community of people.
You grew up in the Bay Area, in Pinole. Your father was an art teacher.
Yes, my father was a beloved public-school art teacher in the East Bay. He served in World War II, came back on the GI Bill and went to California College of Arts & Crafts, now CCA. So I received my first exposure to art coming to our museum when we were in the War Memorial Building on Van Ness Avenue.
I know you spent a lot of time as a kid at the old location.
For many years, I saw most every exhibition the museum mounted. I was eight, 10, 12 years old. In those days, if you were a sophisticated high school student, you’d take your date on a Thursday night to SFMOMA. I remember coming with a date to the opening of the Judy Chicago Dinner Party exhibition. I remember—I vividly remember—that.
Was there a particular piece of art in your youth that really spoke to you?
There was a Clyfford Still painting in the museum’s collection that was titled Self-Portrait. Of course, it was Clyfford Still and there was no self-portrait to be found. It was an abstract painting on a black ground, about six feet high and I didn’t understand, for the life of me, how this could be a self-portrait. My father, who was an abstract painter, was able to explain to me that for an artist, you could refer to yourself in an emotional, expressive way without actually delineating a figure. This was a mind-blowing assertion my father made, and it captivated me.
What was it about that assertion that moved you so much?
Well, it challenged conventional wisdom. It made you see the world differently. It made you think about art differently. You couldn’t come at contemporary art in a passive way. It wasn’t all going to be revealed to you. You had to engage with the work.
Did you always know you wanted to marry your passion for art with your profession?
No, not always. I was really interested in history and politics. When I went to Berkeley as an undergraduate, I was a political science major and I took a lot of art history classes as a kind of minor. But then, at a certain point, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to go to law school, which had always been my intent. I stayed a fifth year [at Berkeley] and did another major in art history. I knew that was the direction I wanted to pursue. I didn’t quite know what that meant, but I knew this was what I was passionate about.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
You’re perpetually challenged by the range of expertise you need to have. When I first became a curator in the ’80s, museums were not the complex organizations they are today—now you’re not only responsible for the creative program of the museum but also its management. I mean, we have several hundred employees. We have a $60 million budget, a significantly larger endowment. Maybe the most important thing I do is to hire world-class people and to delegate to them.
What makes SFMOMA among the most important contemporary and modern art collections in the world?
The museum’s collection has been formed largely through the generosity of our community. I think the public probably thinks the museum has funds to go out and buy paintings, buy works of art, whenever we want. In fact, we have a relatively small budget. Eighty-five percent of our collection was either given to us or purchased for us by individuals in our community. That is a remarkable statistic.
It sure is.
Historically, we have developed collections of certain key artists in depth so that we have rich collections. We just completed the Robert Rauschenberg retrospective, for example. I think we have something in the neighborhood of 95 works by Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly and Andy Warhol. The way the museum has collected and the way the community has collected is in sync. I think when we’re at our best, we create programming here that captures the spirit of the Bay Area—innovation and openness and a certain progressive spirit. We try to create exhibitions that not only bring great pieces of art here, but also present them in such a way that captures that spirit somehow.
With so much uncertainty and anxiety in the world, I feel like the museum also provides a nice respite from the world and its problems. Do you see it that way?
It is a fraught time, there’s no question about it. On the one hand, we want to provide a respite. But on the other hand, we also want to be engaged in the world. If we’re just a respite, then we’re absenting ourselves from the debate out there. I think when we’re really good, we’ve got to engage with the issues that are concerning people today. If we can achieve that, I think we have done something pretty special.
Art has always been a reflection of the times and the culture and politics in which we live, right?
Right. For example, a few years ago when marriage equality was a very hot issue—not just in San Francisco but in the country—we did a show about marriage equality called The Air We Breathe. It was a small show, a modest show, but had maximal impact. I think the more we can do that kind of work here, the more we’ll mean to the community.
Do you have a favorite artist—one you just can’t get enough of?
One of the favorite projects I worked on when I was a curator—before I went over to the dark side and became a museum director—was a big retrospective of the artist Bruce Nauman. He came from the Midwest, but he went to UC Davis and then set up shop after finishing graduate school right in the neighborhood of the museum. I think he’s one of the most influential artists in the contemporary period.
You have been at the museum for more than 15 years now. How do you stay inspired?
I have to remind myself to get out of my office. I need to go to the galleries, to travel—not necessarily always with a purpose, but just to look and to think and to see things, to see what’s going on in the world, what other museums are doing, what artists are making today. It’s important for me to be conversant with what’s new and exciting, and I’ve got to kind of push myself to stop being a manager and get out and exercise my passion for what brought me here in the first place.
With this crazy schedule of yours, how do you recharge your batteries?
I exercise a lot. I’ve been an insomniac ever since I was a little kid. If I could exercise every day of my life, I’d be a really happy person, because I’d sleep better.
I know you’re a long way from retiring, but when you do, what would you like your legacy here to be?
I honestly don’t think in terms of my impact. One of the things I realized when I came here was that if this place was going to succeed, it was going to succeed because a lot of people helped build it. So, when I think about my legacy here, I think of our legacy here—the staff, the board of trustees—and how this group of people, at this period in time, came together to do something pretty special.
The biggest risk I’ve ever taken…
The decision to not open a temporary museum somewhere [during SFMOMA’s renovation]… to not have a home and have essentially no revenue for a couple of years
If I had a magic wand I would…
Wish for the opportunity for the museum to take more risks
My biggest regret…
I don’t think in terms of regrets. There’s something about the Bay Area and this museum that doesn’t allow much time for that
I’m happiest when…
I’m on my bicycle. I mean, I love to ride my bike because it’s the most wonderful opportunity to daydream, and there’s very little time for constructive daydreaming in this life