PRINT October 2001


David A. Ross

AS ABRUPTLY AS THE DEATH of a Silicon Valley dot-com, David A. Ross’s flashy three-year stint as director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art came to an end on August 16, when he unexpectedly resigned. The departure was so sudden that even Ross’s wife, speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle, called her husband’s decision “a surprise.”

“I’ve worked in art museums without interruption for nearly thirty-two years. The prospect of some time to think is, quite frankly, a dream come true,” Ross explained when asked why he interrupted his largely successful run at SF MoMA—during which museum membership nearly doubled and significant (and extravagant) purchases were made—with no new job in the offing. That Ross, who sought the limelight in California as avidly as he had in New York during his Whitney tenure, is merely hoping for a moment’s quiet reflection seems odd, as does the apparently contradictory reasoning he has rehearsed in the press (from concerns about making ends meet to the desire to pursue certain humanitarian endeavors). Early and less-than-decisive reports in both the New York Times and the Chronicle deduced that the sagging Bay Area economy was the primary reason for Ross’s diminished interest in leading SF MoMA. (After all, the dot-com boom had helped fund $140 million worth of rapid acquisitions, including pieces by Chuck Close, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Rauschenberg, which transformed the museum’s collection from provincial to estimable.)

Yet Ross has no plans to leave the post-bust Bay Area. And his pronouncement in the Chronicle that he quit to “go make some money” (this given the handsome, and dependable, $393,000 salary he was pulling in as director) was coupled with a declaration that he is now focused on writing a book for MIT Press—hardly an imprint for lucrative bestsellers. Equally slippery, if the dot-com downfall is in fact motivating Ross’s actions, was his confirmation that he’ll continue to serve on the board of directors for Eyestorm, the e-commerce company infamous for selling high-run prints by Damien Hirst. Interestingly, Eyestorm is funded with much of the same Bay Area money that fuels SF MoMA, yet another cause-for-rift speculated on in the press, then denied by Elaine McKeon, chairwoman of SF MoMA'S board of trustees. Eyestorm’s backers include two major museum donors—Charles Schwab, who made a hefty personal investment in Eyestorm last October, and Richard Kramlich, a general partner at New Enterprise Associates, a San Francisco venture capital firm—so Ross isn’t cutting all his ties to the institution.

Despite reports that Ross’s move was “impulsive,” museum insiders say that the split had been brewing for a while. “David’s resignation wasn’t a total surprise,” said McKeon. According to the chairwoman, the problems began with the resignation in January of Lori Fogarty, the museum’s longtime deputy director, leaving a staffing void that forced Ross to assume managerial duties. Ross, a showman with a knack for charming donors and provoking critics, was apparently less than enthralled by his new responsibilities. “David may be a compelling public persona and someone full of fascinating ideas, but he just didn’t want to handle the internal, day-to-day realities,” observed McKeon. Curiously, Ross spent eight months searching for a new deputy director without results—though logic would dictate that he would be anxious to fill the position. After twelve loyal years at SF MoMA, Fogarty left to direct the Bay Area Discovery Museum—a step up in title, but perhaps a step down from a major arts institution. Was her move prompted by difficult relations at SF MoMA? Departures within the last year and a half of former curators Gary Garrels (now at New York’s Museum of Modern Art) and Aaron Betsky (now at the Netherlands Architecture Institute) have occasioned some speculation on this front.

At press time, the museum was beginning the process of selecting an executive search firm. Ruth Berson, SF MoMA’s current director of exhibitions, and Katie Koch, chief administrative officer, are serving as acting directors until a replacement for Ross is hired. Both will also continue in their principal roles. The search for a new deputy director was dropped when Ross resigned, but will be resumed once a new director is in place.

In the meantime, museum officials are seeking to keep the fallout free of innuendo. “The reason David left is simple, and a lot of people can’t accept that, so they’re creating scenarios,” says McKeon, adding that the various rumors that have circulated in the wake of the resignation are nothing but hearsay. “After all, he’s fascinated the public for some time, and people are looking for a story that’s as interesting as he is.”

For his part, as if ready with a mea culpa, Ross is playing up his PC credentials. He talks of his work with the American Anti-Slavery Group, a Boston-based grassroots organization founded in 1993 to fight international slavery, as a new priority. “Nothing puts the petty politics of art-world careerism in better perspective,” he states—with conviction.

Reena Jana is a frequent contributor to Artforum.