PRINT May 1998

US News

SF MoMA’s new director David Ross

WHEN DAVID A. ROSS first arrived as director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1991, there was intense skepticism among art-world denizens. The museum’s board had said publicly it wanted a more scholarly balance after Tom Armstrong’s contentious reign, remembered as a lovefest of contemporary solo shows by the gallery establishment’s most fashionable names. But hire Ross, the bad-boy director from Boston’s ICA? It wasn’t too long into his new directorship, following the blistering reviews that greeted his Richard Avedon show, that rumors of the board’s fury started flying. Ross’ days, it seemed, were numbered.

Wrong. After seven years on the job, Ross is now moving on under his own steam. In July he becomes director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The Whitney and SF MoMA are similar in many ways. Each has an operating budget of $16 million to $17 million, and endowments of around $40 million. Both institutions have new or newly enlarged buildings. The size of the collections is also about equal, although SF MoMA’s, at fifteen thousand works, is slightly larger. Finally, both institutions have strong boards that are good at raising money. In other words, Ross’ appointment is an interesting move, but not a surprising one.

In response to the announcement, Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic of The New York Times, wrote a scathing send-off, stating that Ross had never in his muddled leadership galvanized the Whitney or the art community. But others have noted Ross’ accomplishments, including the museum’s new exhibition space and an endowment that nearly doubled. Still, Ross has never overcome the sting from his first years’ mistakes nor shed the large personality that has made him such an irresistible bull’s-eye.

Ross is even-handed about his critics. “For me, it’s not personal; it is about the contest of ideas,” he says. "You can’t be afraid to put your neck out. No museum ever runs fully smoothly, especially when board members are passionate about the museum and its programs. I’ll expect to have ideas that conflict with people on the West Coast, too.

“I was taken by surprise when Jack [Lane, SF MoMA’s previous director] decided to leave,” Ross continues. “And I don’t feel I’m done at the Whitney. But my family and I did some soul searching and thought it made sense. My wife went to Berkeley and Stanford and I spent seven years out there, at the Long Beach Museum of Art and then at the University Art Museum in Berkeley. So we have real history and interests there. It is also a different situation than when I arrived here, when there was still some bitterness at the museum toward Armstrong. Jack left the institution with enormous success and an upward trajectory.”

For now, with the honeymoon not yet begun, the sentiment out west is clear. Elaine McKeon, chairman of SF MoMA’s board, says, “David is a controversial man and I love it. We were looking for someone who was high profile, with international contacts. We need that kind of energy to jumpstart this community. He’s not going to have any problems the way he did when he started at the Whitney, believe me.”

David Bonetti, art critic of The San Francisco Examiner, is blunter. “That David is associated with idea and culture shows—even if those have gotten him into hot water with New York critics—is appropriate for contemporary art. And that should be good for the trustees, good for the curators, good for the museum’s public. David isn’t a mystery man. Everyone out here knows what we’re getting.”

Steven Henry Madoff is deputy editor of Time Inc. New Media.