SFMOMA director Neal Benezra had 18 good years, and one pretty bad one, but will stick around long enough to pick his successor.
When recent months’ headlines included SFMOMA Executive Steps Down After Institutional Racism Incident and SFMOMA Senior Curator Resigns Following Uproar Over Comment About White Artists, you can take a wild guess the direction in which things are going. The resignations have worked their way to the top of the food chain at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, as the Chronicle reported Tuesday morning that SFMOMA director Neal Benezra is stepping down after 19 years in the position, in a resignation that seemed pretty inevitable, but still feels very surprising.
Benezra took the post in 2002, and most notably, oversaw a major bequest from the founders of Gap Inc. and a 170,000 square foot expansion and redesign of the museum by Norway-based architects Snøhetta that was completed in 2016.
“19 years is a long time, and the time feels right to begin our succession planning,” the 67-year-old Benezra told the New York Times. “What we are announcing is the beginning of a transition,” he said, emphasizing it was “not a departure.”
Many museums were at risk of suffering layoffs and furloughs during the COVID-19 shutdowns, and of course SFMOMA had to lay off 55 employees in June and cut salaries by 20% in September. The museum did reopen briefly later that month, but shuttered again when the city backslid with the Thanksgiving COVID-19 surge.
It was a largely successful tenure for Benezra, expanding the collection, overseeing a redesign that doubled the physical space of the museum, and making SFMOMA one of the largest modern art museums in the country. There were some dicey, unpublicized stipulations that made the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection come across as fishy, and the museum’s leaning on that collection led displays to be dominated by white, male artists.
But the quiet part got said out loud, and by top museum officials, in late May shortly after they posted the obligatory and performative Black Lives Matter Instagram post above. A former employee who left amidst what she felt was discriminatory workplace left a critical comment on the post, and suddenly all comments were disabled, and the #boycottsfmoma hashtag took off, and deputy director of external relations Nan Keeton resigned. Things took a turn for the even worse when chief curator Gary Garrels said "Don’t worry, we will definitely still continue to collect white artists" on a Zoom call about diversifying the collection. He too would step down, and now, so has the boss.
The succession discussion, Benezra insists to the Chronicle, has already been going on since before that 2020 dustup, and that did not prompt this announcement. "Succession planning is good governance, and it’s something that the board leaders and I have been talking about since the fall of 2019," he said. "This was not a sudden decision we came to. I think we’re ready to move into that next phase. I’m feeling good about it."
Benezra will stay on to help choose and usher in his replacement, and is telegraphing that they will consider women and people of color. “I can’t imagine that they’re not going to cast a very wide net geographically but also in terms of gender and race,” he told the Chronicle.
We can’t imagine that they’re not going to see #boycottsfmoma trend again if they hire another white middle-aged man.