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SFAI President Steps Down to Become Chronicle’s Chief Critic

The San Francisco Chronicle has hired an unlikely art critic, as some might see it, to replace Kenneth Baker, who retired last spring after thirty years. The paper has announced that Charles Desmarais, the president of the San Francisco Art Institute for the past four years, will begin the job in November. Desmarais simultaneously announced that he would leave his academic post to focus on writing. “To me, writing criticism is learning in public, and that’s a scary thing,” he said.

A curator, museum director, and writer, Desmarais guided SFAI as it faced the threat of losing its accreditation; he also developed the plan to move the graduate programs from a facility in the Dogpatch neighborhood to Fort Mason.

He was formerly director of the California Museum of Photography at UC Riverside, and later the director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. There, in the middle of his eleven-year tenure, he helped the organization survive after a show featuring images of Robert Mapplethorpe led to controversy and the departure of more conservative donors. He then worked for half a decade as deputy director for art at the Brooklyn Museum.

Noting that the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Berkeley Art Museum are both inaugurating new buildings in 2016, Desmarais said he considered it a unique and contradictory moment in San Francisco’s art scene.

“We’re getting ready to open more than a billion dollars’ worth of art facilities, and it’s a time of change and challenge for our community,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of churn going on in the gallery world. Artists are worried and leaving because they can’t afford to live here. Our city is at a remarkable crossroads and to be thinking about that and talking about that is something that is very attractive to me.”

“We could not be more thrilled to have someone of Charles’ stature take on this deeply important reporting role at the Chronicle,” said Audrey Cooper, the paper’s editor in chief.