Neal Benezra Brings SFMOMA Back

Sarah Thornton

“A great curator has to be charismatic,” says Neal Benezra, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which reopens on May 14 after a massive expansion and remodel. “He or she needs real intellectual firepower but also a messianic skill set that can inspire people both inside and outside the museum.” Benezra worked as a curator for almost 15 years before moving into a dual deputy director and curator role at the Art Institute of Chicago, then taking the helm of SFMOMA in 2002. “Being a curator of contemporary art, where everything is moving, is not like being a curator of the Italian Renaissance,” he adds. “It is not a desk job. Curators really need to get out there, looking, talking, meeting artists and collectors.”

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The new SFMOMA, designed by Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta, reopens on May 14. Photo by Henrik Kam, courtesy of SFMOMA.

Charm is rarely acknowledged as an essential curatorial attribute, but it makes perfect sense. Curators need to be persuasive. They need to win over acquisitions committees, convey their conviction in artists and convince others of the urgency of their exhibition ideas. They must be able to coax and cajole difficult artists and demanding collectors, particularly as the latter sometimes rely on curators as sounding boards or unpaid art consultants. In exchange for the expert advice, it is hoped that collectors will give generously when the time is right.

SFMOMA’s recent fundraising efforts are the envy of many museums. Not only did the institution raise $610 million principally for its new building and endowment, but it also received a phenomenal number of art donations. More than 1,000 works are on a 100-year loan from Don and Doris Fisher, co-founders of The Gap, and 3,000 pieces were gifted by 230 donors under the rubric of “The Campaign for Art.” Indeed, roughly 70 percent of the museum’s 140,000 square feet of exhibition space will be filled with recent additions to the collection. “Exhibitions come and go, but it is the collections that stay,” explains Benezra. “I am hoping that our collections will define SFMOMA as a destination.”

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Richard Serra’s Sequence, 2006, is the centerpiece of The Roberts Family Gallery at the SFMOMA. Photo by Matthew Millman.

The institution has no single chief curator but five curatorial heads of department, reporting to Benezra and Deputy Director Ruth Berson. Gary Garrels, senior curator of painting and sculpture, was “deeply involved” in setting the collection campaign’s goals and pulling in artworks. “I know the collections pretty well and identified holes and priorities,” says Garrels. For example, the museum had no significant work by the influential Joseph Beuys, a serious omission given their strong holdings in other postwar German artists such as Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke. “Through discussions with a trio of donors, we now have a whole room of Beuys,” he says.

Coming up with a curatorial strategy for installing so many new pieces was no mean feat. “Every gallery in the museum is a chapter in an open story,” explains Garrels. The works have geographical, thematic or material affinities, so that any room can be switched out. Garrels and his colleagues started plotting how to hang the museum over three years ago by ruminating over models of the building at their storage facility. “I would wake up at four in the morning, thinking, Oh God, that has to move,” he says. “Then I’d go down to the Collections Center and spend time fussing with the model.


Dan Flavin’s Untitled (to Barnett Newman) two, 1971. Photo by Don Ross/Katherine Du Tiel.

Imagining how people will flow through the seven floors of exhibition space was another issue. “The seventh floor may be first one for a lot of people. If you think about the way people negotiate large museums, they often prefer to take the elevator to the top floor, then walk down,” says Rudolf Frieling, curator of media arts. Indeed, the new building by architectural firm Snøhetta has beautiful staircases, which are flooded with natural light and offer a breather between the onslaughts of art. Frieling sometimes oversees complex, site-specific installations, so understanding the fine points of museum footfall is more relevant than if he were simply hanging 2D works on the wall. Not surprisingly, he thinks that a good curator “pushes the institution to embrace challenges and changes.”

With the exception of a gallery devoted to Alexander Calder, the third floor of the museum is dedicated to photography—in fact, the largest display of the medium in any museum in the U.S. Sandra Phillips, senior curator of photography, is organizing a show of recent gifts titled “California and the West.” “New York thinks that it is the center of the universe,” she says. “But California has this amazing tradition of photography that has been very active since the Gold Rush.” In the autumn, this exhibition will be succeeded by one of Japanese photography, in large part the result of a donation from Akiyoshi Taniguchi, a Buddhist priest. These two photography shows are part of the new SFMOMA’s mission to be both properly international but also responsive to the California cultural community.

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Aaron Siskind’s Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation, 1961, part of the Prizker Center for Photography at SFMOMA.

One quintessential Bay Area show will be “Typeface to Interface,” an exhibition inspired by a large gift of modern design from Aaron Marcus, a graphic designer and teacher. SFMOMA started its design department in the late 1980s just before the mass adoption of computers. “Digital tools have impacted every aspect of the discipline,” explains Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, curator of architecture and design, “so we were fortunate to be founded then.” Nowadays, aspiring designers are flooding the Bay Area in the hope of working with the advanced engineering of firms like Apple and Google. “With design, I think of Southern California as owning that mid-20th-century moment,” declares Dunlop Fletcher. “But we’ve got a hold on the beginning of the 21st century and are well positioned for the next 50 years.”

A series of commissioned performances will not start until the autumn because people’s attention will be focused, as Dominic Willsdon, curator of education and public practice, quips, “on the blinding presence of the museum as object.” With a remit that includes “live encounters” and “experiences of the communal,” Willsdon is particularly excited about three spaces in the new museum—the renovated Phyllis Wattis Theater, the greatly expanded Koret Visitor Education Center and a brand-new “white box,” a large double-height room that will be a home for performance art. Willsdon loves the “incredible collegial atmosphere” of SFMOMA, which he attributes to the absence of a chief curator. “We don’t have turf wars,” he says. “People have their different specialized areas but because we’re all post-medium now, we have a model of working together. Things happen because alliances are formed.”

Benezra sees interdepartmental alliances as a key to their future success. “The best artists are pursuing the best ideas regardless of the medium,” he explains. “So our curators need to think outside the box of their particular medium.” And even though the museum has yet to open its doors, Benezra is already discouraging his curators from resting on their laurels. “I don’t want anyone to become too comfortable,” he declares. “We have to push forward ambitiously into contemporary art, and when I say contemporary art, I mean really contemporary art.”