Neal Benezra, the longtime director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is stepping down. According to the New York Times, which first reported the news, Benezra will help the museum find his replacement, staying on until a new director is appointed.
Benezra told the Times that the move marks “the beginning of a transition.” Recent controversies at the museum “had absolutely nothing to do with my decision,” he said. Among those controversies was the resignation of the SFMOMA’s senior curator of painting and sculpture, Gary Garrels, who left in July, reportedly after a staff outcry resulting from a comment in which he claimed that not collecting work by white male artists was “reverse discrimination.”
Benezra’s departure after 19 years at the helm that has seen a vast expansion of the museum, suspicion over the way it presented some of its offerings, and tumult in recent months as SFMOMA workers publicly voiced concerns about leadership.
Over the last year, the museum weathered financial fallout resulting from the pandemic, along with many other institutions across the U.S. In August, SFMOMA issued layoffs and furloughs of workers, and its highest-paid employees, including Benezra, took salary reductions.
Also like a number of other U.S. museums, SFMOMA faced criticism for its leaders’ responses to the police killing of George Floyd and the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. In June, a group of former SFMOMA employees released a letter condemning the “racist censorship” of Taylor Brandon, a Black staff member in the museum’s communications department whose comment critiquing the museum’s Instagram post of a Glenn Ligon work was deleted. Benezra subsequently apologized for the deletion of Brandon’s comment.
Then, in July, Garrels resigned. He later apologized for his comments, saying in an email to staff, “I realized almost as soon as I used the term ‘reverse discrimination’ that this is an offensive term and was an extremely poor choice of words on my part.”
Even before this year, however, SFMOMA had been the subject of scrutiny. Over the past decade, critics of the museum have decried the museum’s presentation of a 1,000-work collection loaned by Gap founder Donald Fisher and his wife Doris, who sits on the SFMOMA board. In a San Francisco Chronicle article, Charles Desmarais reported that, in 2009, the Fishers and Benezra had struck a deal that included stipulations about how and when the collection was to be shown. Desmarais’s article decried the lack of transparency SFMOMA had provided about its presentation of the Fisher collection.
Benezra also drew controversy in 2019, when the museum sold a Mark Rothko painting at Sotheby’s. The goal, Benezra said, was to “broadly diversify SFMOMA’s collection,” and it followed a similar move made by the Baltimore Museum of Art. With the $50.1 million brought in, the museum bought works by Frank Bowling, Alma Thomas, Mickalene Thomas, and others. Christopher Knight, a Los Angeles Times critic who has frequently spoken out against the practice known as deaccessioning, said of the sale, “Dumping a major Rothko because you have others abandons the museum-virtue of collecting an artist in depth.”
Benezra’s greatest legacy at SFMOMA may be its Snøhetta-designed expansion and renovation, which opened in 2016 and cost $305 million. The museum’s rehang drew praise from critics, and the building was touted by many, with Andrew Russeth calling it “magnificent” in his ARTnews review.
“Now it is time to plan for succession and our search committee will begin a values-driven, comprehensive search for a new leader,” Robert Fisher, the chair of SFMOMA’s board, said in a statement. “The next director will take SFMOMA into the future and continue to affirm our role in making the art of our time matter to our communities.”