PRINT May 2002


Safe and Sound: Peter Plagens on Neal Benezra

The first thing you need to know about the wonderful world of art museums is that everything that happens in them or with them or to them is not only always perfectly normal but also going exactly according to plan. (God forbid anybody connected with an art museum should ever make a mistake, be surprised, or have to scramble to fix something. Never happens. Couldn’t happen.) So when, for instance, the director of a major art museum—who came to the job a scant three years before with a lot of flash and filigree from another major museum where he was rumored to be in hot water—precipitously “resigns” to “pursue other opportunities,” you can rest assured that absolutely nothing is amiss, nothing unexpected happened, and, of course, everybody concerned still loves and admires everybody concerned.

All of which means that the appointment of current Art Institute of Chicago deputy director and curator of modern and contemporary art Neal Benezra, 48, to David Ross’s old job as director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (effective August 1) has nothing to do with correcting a trajectory of exceeded expense accounts, absentee management, a perception of uninterest on the part of many local gallery owners, and a less-than-promising relationship with “Hunk” and “Moo” Anderson (whose vast and stellar painting and sculpture collection’s not ending up largely at SF MoMA would be not only a loss but an acute embarrassment). When chairman of the board of trustees Elaine McKeon says, “We were looking for two things [in a new director]: an art background—and Neal’s is very impressive—plus managerial skills,” she’s certainly not alluding to any lack of sympathy for painting and sculpture or disdain for day-to-day leadership on the part of Benezra’s predecessor. And when Benezra says a director “can’t just focus on the art on the walls and the floors but has to worry about the walls and floors themselves,” he’s not saying he got the job at least in part because he promised to be a readily available, minding-the-store executive.

But whatever the obligatory formulaic quality to their comments (which were offered freely and cheerfully), McKeon and Benezra seem to be proffering just what SF MoMA needs right now. Benezra says that he “quite consciously began assuming managerial roles in 1994” as chief curator at the Hirshhorn Museum, and that he’s spent two-thirds of his time in Chicago “overseeing things like publications, imaging, education, registration, library, museum services, and about 140 staffers” in order to prepare himself for an eventual directorship. His relatively establishment taste in art (he’s curated shows on Martin Puryear, Bruce Nauman, and “Regarding Beauty”) bodes a rebalancing of older and newer art media. McKeon notes that while things have been going swimmingly with the Andersons all along, “Hunk is happy to have Neal as director; they’ve known each other for years.” (Benezra was coordinator of the Anderson Collection in the early ’80s.) McKeon says that Benezra says he wants this to be the last job he ever has. Even with some belt-tightening to come (due to the deflation of the Bay Area’s silicon economy), SF MoMA has probably put itself in a pretty stable long-term position. You might say things have gone from normal back to normal.

Peter Plagens is art critic for Newsweek and a frequent contributor to Artforum.