San Francisco Museum of Modern Art appoints new director

A year after the resignation of its longtime leader, Neal Benezra, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art announced its successor on Wednesday, Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Bedford, who will start in June, championed diversity through collection acquisitions and salary increases during his tenure in Baltimore. He made the controversial decision in 2020 to sell three major works to diversify his collection, but reversed in response to complaints from former Baltimore museum trustees and community members. In 2019, he announced that for one year, the museum would only acquire works by female artists.

He comes to SFMOMA at a time when the institution is recovering from the difficult departure of its chief curator, Gary Garrels, in 2020 after being accused of racism. Benezra publicly apologized and the museum has since established a “core team” and embarked on a strategic plan focused on diversity, equity and inclusion.

“SFMOMA’s job description has struck major chord, particularly in its demand for values-based leadership, its commitment to systemic change, and its aspirations for diversity, equity and inclusion. “Bedford, 44, said in an email.

“These are principles and commitments deeply shared by myself,” he added. “I am excited to begin.”

In a letter to staff explaining their “unanimous” selection of Bedford, the search committee said they found her diversity track record “exceptional” and that this area “has been central to Chris’ work, informing all efforts and driving systemic change through a museum’s culture and production.

The search committee letter praised Bedford’s work as a curator on projects such as Mark Bradford’s American Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale and Mickalene Thomas’ 2019 commission for the Baltimore Museum, which transformed the The museum’s two-story lobby is a living room for the city, filled with works by local artists. He also supported the great Joan Mitchell retrospective co-organized by the BMA and the SFMOMA.

The new job is a step forward for Bedford, which until now ran a museum with an annual budget, in 2021, of $16.9 million and a staff of 182. Its endowment, as of December 31, was $197.6 million; he has no deficit.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has a budget of $53.4 million, a staff of 360, and an endowment of $500 million; it also has no deficit, according to a spokesperson.

At a time when museums across the country are trying to build more inclusivity into their programming, recruitment and leadership, the appointment of Bedford, a white man, is likely to face some criticism.

But Pamela J. Joyner, an SFMOMA board member who led the search committee with museum president Diana L. Nelson, said she was confident Bedford was the right person for the job.

“Chris has worked hard and proven himself in creating a more inclusive history of art,” Joyner said in an email message. “Evening the playing field takes a boldness that he is known for.”

“Although he is not a woman or a person of color, and I understand how that can be an unexpected outcome,” added Joyner, who is black herself, “I think he will materially promote visibility and the best interest of these groups based on its past performance.

Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, who led the charge on diversity issues, said he felt comfortable with Bedford’s selection. “While I am disappointed that a diverse candidate was not chosen,” Walker said in a telephone interview, “no museum leader is more committed to diversity than Chris Bedford.”

A person familiar with the job search who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to reveal her details, said the SFMOMA job was not an easy sell to candidates, given San Francisco’s relatively low-key contemporary art scene and lukewarm interest in arts patronage among Silicon Valley moguls. the Gagosian recently closed gallery in San Francisco).

Born in Scotland and raised in the United States and England, Bedford received his BA from Oberlin College and his MA in Art History and Museum Studies through the joint program at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland. Museum of Art.

He also studied in the Art History PhD programs at the University of Southern California and the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London. Before coming to Baltimore in 2016, Bedford served as director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, and prior to that held curatorial positions at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, Los Angeles County. Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum.

In Baltimore, Bedford developed a reputation for disruptive, such as when he announced his year-long commitment to only acquire works by female artists.

“You don’t just buy a painting by a woman artist of color and hang it on the wall next to a painting by Mark Rothko,” Bedford said at the time. “To rectify centuries of imbalance, something drastic must be done.”

Some saw the decision as stagecraft, arguing that female artists should be acquired by museums on a regular basis, of course.

Likewise, many saw Bedford’s decision to auction off works by Brice Marden, Clyfford Still and Andy Warhol — to fund art acquisitions by people of color and staff-wide pay rises — as a rash move to score politically correct points. While the museum had previously disposed of works, in this case “Baltimore was selling masterpieces,” Arnold Lehman, former director of the Baltimore Museum and the Brooklyn Museum, said at the time.

It remains to be seen how Bedford’s appointment will play out with SFMOMA staff members. Garrels, the chief curator, was seen by many there as a reprehensible representative of the status quo after being reported to have said during a Zoom meeting, “Don’t worry, we will definitely continue to collect white artists.” Amid the ensuing uproar – and despite responding that his comments were “a bit biased” – Garrels resigned shortly thereafter.

Bedford said he plans to learn from SFMOMA staff and “take the time to understand the institution.”

“I know I’m not the person some might have anticipated or hoped for as the choice of new SFMOMA manager,” Bedford said. “I respect those perspectives and come to this position with great humility.

“What I can say is that I have placed the related values ​​of diversity and equity at the heart of my work over the past 15 years, from building collections to curating exhibitions, staff growth to board growth and community engagement,” he added. “I want to bring these values ​​and beliefs to my new role at SFMOMA. This involves ensuring that a wide range of voices are at the table.

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