SFMOMA Director Neal Benezra, Who Presided Over Its Major Expansion and Fell Under Scrutiny, Is Stepping Down

The director has been at SFMOMA for 19 years.

Neal Benezra at Crissy Field; photo: Karl Nielsen.

Neal Benezra, the director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), will step down from his post—one of the most visible museum leadership roles in the United States—after nearly two decades.

The news was first reported by the New York Times, to which Benezra characterized the development as “the beginning of a transition” and “not a departure.” He will remain in place until a new director is hired.

Benezra is leaving after a particularly tumultuous year for the institution. Like many museums across the United States, SFMOMA was closed for much of 2020 (it reopened in mid-August only to shutter again in late November) and is now facing a $17 million deficit. To date, the museum has laid off more than 30 percent of its pre-shutdown staff—cutbacks that prompted some to take aim at Benezra’s salary, suggesting that the voluntary 50 percent pay cut he accepted for several months was insufficient.

Meanwhile, perhaps more than almost any other institution in the country, SFMOMA has faced scrutiny from staff who claim it perpetuated structural biases. Critics called out SFMOMA for statements made over the summer that failed to mention George Floyd, racism, police, or the Black Lives Matter movement. The backlash only intensified when the museum deleted a critical Instagram comment made by Taylor Brandon, a former employee who is Black. In a later post, Benezra publicly apologized to Brandon, who, he said, “raised serious and important concerns.”

In a statement to the Times, Benezra said the controversies were unrelated to his decision to step down, which he began discussing internally in 2019.

Benezra’s departure will leave a vacuum at the top of the museum’s org chart. Over the summer, its chief curator, Gary Garrels, resigned following an uproar over comments he made in an all-staff Zoom meeting; he has not been replaced. The museum’s celebrated photography department is also in search of a new head after Clément Chéroux was poached by the Museum of Modern Art in New York last year.

The expanded SFMOMA. Image courtesy of SFMOMA.

Benezra has left a large imprint on both the museum’s physical building and its collection. He presided over a $610 million, three-year campaign to expand the institution with a new building designed by Norwegian architecture giant Snøhetta, which brought its square footage to a whopping 460,000, tripling its existing gallery space. He also oversaw the installation of a monumental mural by Julie Mehretu in the overhauled lobby.

Part of what necessitated the expansion was a novel, 100-year loan of the collection of Gap founders Donald and Doris Fisher to the museum. The arrangement enabled the museum to present scores of blue-chip works far out of its price range, including masterpieces by Roy Lichtenstein, Ellsworth Kelly, and Agnes Martin. But Benezra faced criticism for the strict terms of the deal, which required a large percentage of the collection remain on view.

Under Benezra’s leadership, the museum also decided, in 2019, to auction off a painting by Mark Rothko for $50.1 million in order to create a dedicated fund to acquire work by female artists, artists of color, and LGBTQ+ artists. Works that have been acquired using the fund include pieces by Frank Bowling, Leonora Carrington, Lygia Clark, and Norman Lewis.

Installation view of Julie Mehretu's HOWL eon (I, II) (2017) at SFMoMA. Photo: Matthew Millman Photography.

Installation view of Julie Mehretu’s HOWL eon (I, II) (2017) at SFMOMA. Photo: Matthew Millman Photography.

“Neal has led SFMOMA through both groundbreaking and challenging times with poise and grace,” said Bob Fisher, Chairman of SFMOMA’s board of trustees, in a statement.  “Whether it was galvanizing our community to support the campaign for our new building, securing the funds to stabilize our endowment for the future, ensuring that all of our young visitors could visit SFMOMA for free or presenting a world-class portfolio of exhibitions and programs, he has invested his passion, intelligence and creativity in our museum.”

The board said it would immediately establish a formal search committee to seek a new director.

Benezra said it has been “the honor of my life” to serve as SFMOMA director, adding: “I’m so proud of all that we have accomplished, and I am equally grateful for the collaboration and passion that the staff, the board, our artists and community have shown during my time here… While the pandemic has brought many challenges to our field this year, I am confident that our staff will join the new director in forging a new and exciting future.”

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