The A-List

By Erin Carlson

Welcome to the 2019 edition of an NHG tradition dating back decades — it’s both a compendium of all the names we’ve dropped over the past year, and a tribute to several San Franciscans who stood out for their distinguished leadership, philanthropic spirit, stylish presence and social grace. This year, we showcase the power couples Mary and Bill PolandNaomi and Harlan KellyMaria Manetti Shrem and Jan Shrem, and Pam and Larry Baer, not to mention four luminaries of the SF arts scene: entrepreneur-sophisticate Sarah Wendell Sherrill, SFMOMA’s Gary Garrels, the Curran’s Carole Shorenstein Hays and author Amy Tan. Oh, we’d be remiss to exclude a local legal legend — Judge Vaughn Walker. Read on, and you’ll see why this group should make every A-list.

Maria Manetti Shrem and Jan Shrem

Illustration by Jenny Kroik.

What makes Maria Manetti Shrem feel “most A-list”? Not a yacht, or a private plane, or a coveted seat at a triple-VIP gala. “Who needs all those material things?” she tells the Gazette, adding: “If I’m not invited to certain things, I don’t get upset.” (Given all the invites she receives, from black-tie San Francisco Opera affairs to Festival Napa, we’re certain Maria welcomes a free day in her packed schedule.) Along with husband Jan, she loves being around like-minded people who are “honest, passionate, interesting” and philanthropic. The Shrems have long supported the arts, a mutual passion that bonded them for life. Jan built an art gallery at the Clos Pigase Winery in Calistoga, which he founded; Maria donated to symphonies throughout the United States and sat on the governor’s board of San Francisco’s MOMA. The two married at City Hall on Valentine’s Day, 2014. Two years later, inspired by their late friend Margrit Mondavi, the pair helped open the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis, which has exhibited the work of innovative Bay Area artists such as Wayne ThiebaudBruce Nauman and Sadie Barnette. Muses Maria: “We inspire each other by trying to better the world.”

Gary Garrels

It’s been a decade since Gary Garrels joined SFMOMA as the Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture. During his tenure, he’s curated hot-ticket exhibits featuring the work of Richard Serra, Sol LeWitt, and Willem de Kooning. “What I love most about my job is working with artists and art,” says Garrels. “That gives me the greatest pleasure. I have been talking with and working with Vija Celmins for many years preparing her retrospective and then installing her work in the galleries for the past two weeks for the retrospective [now on display] at SFMOMA. This is such a privilege and nothing gives me more happiness in my work.” Garrels, a member of the board of trustees of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, previously held chief curator positions at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“My greatest achievement I think has been building the museums’ collection of painting, sculpture and works on paper, which I started in 1993,” he notes. “The transformation of the museum’s collection over the past 25 years still astonishes me.” Following the Celmins exhibit, Garrels will turn his attention to the Andy Warhol retrospective currently showing at the Whitney Museum in New York. It opens at SFMOMA in mid-May, and will most certainly be another of Garrel’s biggest hits.

Sarah Wendell Sherrill

Photo by Spencer Brown.

The art-world entrepreneur is one of the sharpest dressers in San Francisco, embodying understated chic and casual cool with a tailored, modern wardrobe that doesn’t try too hard. Sarah Wendell Sherrill’s sophisticated eye has made her a valuable, discerning leader in her industry.

She graduated from Williams College in 2008 with a degree in art history, then spent six years with Christie’s New York office, where she was a vice president of postwar and contemporary art. She then returned to her native California, becoming president of Berggruen Gallery. In September 2017, she co-founded Lobus with former Christie’s colleague Lori Hotz. The platform supplies art connoisseurs with comprehensive auction data.

“I’ve had incredible training along the way,” she says. “A lot of my career in the art world, from being an art history student through the last 10 years, has been art at the top of the market — and really seeing that evolve and the lack of information that exists, and how hungry the next generation is for information that they can trust and look at and understand, because we’re a data-driven generation.”

One of her favorite artists? Marcel Duchamp. “I have a particular affinity for the everyday object — the found object,” she reveals.

Pam and Larry Baer

Illustration by Chris Koehler.

“We are grateful,” says Pam Baer. “Grateful to live in this city that we love, where we can help to make a difference. Grateful to have the resources to help others and bring issues of this city and county to the forefront of people’s consciousness. Grateful that we are able to live our mission of Live. Love. Give. Oh, and grateful for our SF Giants!” Pam is the founder of FSG & Co., a social enterprise that connects brands, consumers and charities in a progressive way. She also serves on the boards of the SF General Hospital Foundation and the SF Giants Community Fund. Her husband, Larry, is the Giants’ CEO. Despite their A-list stature, the couple are warm and friendly.

“We continually inspire each other by lending a helping hand and going the extra mile for each other, our family and friends,” Pam explains. “And when we see our children volunteer with community nonprofits … that is the ultimate fulfillment and inspiration.” And speaking of philanthropy, Pam co-chairs the annual Hearts in SF event, presented by the SF General Hospital Foundation at AT&T Park on February 13. This year, the event shines a light on mental health care. “It benefits Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital,” says Pam. “It will highlight and celebrate the amazing work at the General, but it will elevate and help to de-stigmatize conversations around mental health.”

Pam remains passionate as ever about her work with the foundation. “The strides they are making and continue to make in creating programs for dealing with trauma, AIDS, the elderly and mental health issues is astounding. We all know someone in our community who needs public health services.” As for Larry, “It’s a rare privilege to have a hand in building a new neighborhood for our city,” he notes. “The Mission Rock development next to the ballpark offers unprecedented levels of affordable housing, open space and design features to address San Francisco’s pressing needs and add to our collective quality of life.” What, above all, do the Baers consider their greatest achievement? “Our family,” Pam declares. “We are very tight-knit and even though we have four kids in four different states, we are all extremely close and value our time together. Larry and I have instilled the importance of making family a priority.”

Amy Tan

Photo by Tara Stevens for Drew Altizer Photography.

The Oakland-born literary legend divides her time between New York and the Bay Area. After writing her breakthrough novel The Joy Luck ClubAmy Tan followed up with five more fiction best-sellers, two children’s books and two memoirs, The Opposite of Fate and Where the Past Begins. Tan’s San Francisco roots run deep: Ten years ago, the SF Opera premiered a stage adaptation of her book The Bonesetter’s Daughter, for which she contributed the libretto.

A woman of many talents, she was also a key member of The Rock Bottom Remainders, an authors’ outfit where she sang backup and played second tambourine alongside Stephen King. The group, now on hiatus, performed concerts to raise money for literacy programs. When she’s not writing, Tan makes regular appearances on the social circuit, posting Instagrams with Nancy Pelosi at the San Francisco Symphony and Robert Redford at the Redford Center’s inaugural benefit this past holiday season. On Insta (@amytanwriter), she also shares her portraits of animals, from house cats to the cheetahs she observed on vacation in Namibia. With her sketches, “I don’t have to worry about people criticizing my work,” Tan told The Washington Post last year. “They don’t expect me to be a professional artist.”

Brenda Wright

Photo by Ando Caulfield for Drew Altizer Photography.

Sometimes it seems like Brenda Wright is the center of the San Francisco social scene, along with her man-about-town, Steve Bowdry. Since she oversees Corporate Philanthropy and Community Relations at Wells Fargo, socializing — for social good — is part of the job. “I am a true lover of the arts and recognize the role it can play in a person’s life,” Wright says. “I am a founding member of the Museum of the African Diaspora and continue to work to garner financial support from this community for the museum. It’s amazing that no matter how often people say, ‘We need to understand each other’s culture’ to improve race relations, they won’t support institutions that help bridge this gap with storytelling through art. Look at the struggle the Mexican Museum is having.” Her professional goal “is to support the growth and prosperity of our low-income communities, so I am fortunate that my career supports my personal passion.” Wright remains “extremely passionate about working to end the inequalities that continue to exist as it relates to women and girls, especially those of color. … I’m proud to see that more women are taking their place as leaders in government, for this is where a lot of the change occurs. Look at the leaders in San Francisco and California. If change is going to happen, it can happen here in San Francisco. We have the will and desire.”

Mary and Bill Poland

Photo by Spencer Brown.

Mary and Bill Poland are a fun-loving, philanthropic pair who really enjoy life — and each other. Mary is the new president of the San Francisco Opera Guild; Bill is a real estate developer who chairs the board of trustees at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. “Our whole marriage — which is pretty long now — is when you have your confidante as your mate,” says Bill. “That’s the person you go to for bouncing off ideas off. … You go, ‘Hey what do you think?’ And then you get that [feeling of ] ‘Oh, huh, I didn’t think about that. I didn’t think about that idea.’ So, it’s fun.” In November, Mary was elected to lead the Opera Guild, succeeding Jane Mudge. She’ll steer the organization in its 80th anniversary season, supervising the biggest, splashiest soiree of San Francisco society — the Opera Ball — not to mention fundraising efforts and education programs.

So far, so good, says Bill of his energetic, dynamic wife. “It’s already showing up,” he raves of the results of her Guild election. “Her follow-through is something that I’m really proud of. She doesn’t forget things and just makes sure to always close the loop on different people — in a friendly way. It’s a trait that she has and she knows how to probe and she’s curious. She’s always thinking of new ways to get things done.” The duo, who are spending the holidays in Colombia and Brazil, would rather go out and meet new people than stay holed up at home. “A lot of people say, ‘OK, I’ve got enough friends.’ They start winding their lives down. ‘I got to this stage. I’ve got my patterns and I wanna stick to my patterns.’” Not Mary and Bill.

“It’s constantly learning,” says Mary of their sociable nature. “And learning from new, interesting, creative and talented people who are right here in San Francisco and flock to San Francisco. I feel like we’re right in the epicenter of learning about what everybody else is doing. I get really excited about being in the Bay Area, and any opportunity I get to meet new people, I like to do that. The knock is that people say, ‘Oh Mary, you’re too social.’ I’m not gonna sit and be with the same people every day of my life. I’m not gonna do that.”

Carole Shorenstein Hays

Illustration by Livia Cives.

Known as a quiet force of nature, producer Carole Shorenstein Hays lets her theatrical achievements do the talking. She’s breathed exciting new life into the San Francisco theater scene since unveiling the updated Curran Theatre in January 2017 with the acclaimed musical Fun Home. Nearly two years later, audiences flocked to the venue this past December to witness the SF premiere of Dear Evan Hansen, the groundbreaking — and Tony-winning — show about mental illness set to an emo-pop soundtrack. Under owner Hays’ wing, “Our goal has been to create a new kind of artistic hub here in San Francisco — one that engages new and existing audiences, and attracts the most visionary artists in the world, by presenting bold, daring work,” states the Curran. (The rival Orpheum and Golden Gate theaters must be feeling the heat!) In fall 2019, Hays brings crowd-pleaser Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to the Curran, which will also host a January 12 event with Senator Kamala Harris as part of its “Show & Tell” speaker series. Theater-world heavyweight George C. Wolfe, director of Angels in AmericaThe Normal Heart and Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, is also slated to participate. “The Curran is my home,” Hays has said. “And I love San Francisco. I love the Curran. It is my joy and my mission to keep it always sacred and alive and welcoming. I am really blessed to live in the greatest city in the world and to work with the most talented people in the city. I never gave any thought to moving any other place. I am a first-generation San Franciscan.”

Judge Vaughn Walker

Photo by Spencer Brown.

His official title was U.S. District Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, but we’ll just call him Judge Vaughn Walker. He held the prestigious position from 1989to 2011, during which he struck down Proposition 8 — which banned same-sex marriage — as unconstitutional. Nominated by former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Judge Walker presided over some 8,000 cases and 250 trials; in retirement he has taught a litigation course at Berkeley School of Law. “One of the things that’s gratifying to me in the last few years is to be on the War Memorial board, which runs the Opera House, the Veterans Building, Davies Symphony Hall, the Ballet rehearsal center and so forth. Those are great facilities in the City and County of San Francisco.” He also sits on the board of the Giffords organization taking on gun violence. “That’s, I think, a very important issue. … They’re doing some good. And we’re making some progress. Not enough, not fast enough.”

Naomi and Harlan Kelly

Photo by Spencer Brown.

Naomi and Harlan Kelly are equally devoted to public service as they are to each other. Harlan, formerly the city engineer of San Francisco and now the general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, says, “Running a city department, but also finding the time on weeknights and weekends to be a volunteer basketball coach at my son’s school — finding that work-life balance is what makes me feel most ‘A-list.’” Chiming in, Naomi, who’s the SF city administrator, the top-ranked nonelected official in both the city and county governments, adds: “Whether I’m mentoring my two sons, or girls who visit City Hall and express an interest in public service careers, I don’t think there’s anything that makes me feel more ‘A-list’ than empowering young people and inspiring them to be change-makers.” And how do they inspire each other? “An enormous sense of humor on both our parts always cuts through any drama,” explains Naomi, to which Harlan adds: “Amen. When life gets a bit intense, we inspire each other with laughter.”

The Kellys on their greatest achievements: Naomi: “Working with Mayor [Ed] Lee, we began the process of transforming dilapidated public housing into mixed-income communities that break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Today, thousands of units are being upgraded and added, and once-struggling families in San Francisco are gaining economic mobility.” Harlan: “In the early 2000s, Mayor [WillieBrown asked me to oversee one of the largest water infrastructure programs in the nation and the largest infrastructure program in San Francisco’s history. The Water System Improvement Program is now 96 percent complete and has resulted in repairing, replacing and seismically upgrading key components of the Hetch Hetchy Regional Water System. Career-wise, there’s nothing more satisfying than bringing an intricate project like this to fruition.” The duo love to entertain. “This past summer, we hosted a private screening of the film Black Panther at the California Academy of Sciences’ Morrison Planetarium for family and friends,” Harlan recalls. Now, that’s a guest list we’d love to get on.

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