The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) has appointed Christopher Bedford as its new director, putting in place a successor for longtime leader Neal Benezra, who announced plans to step down exactly one year ago today.
For the past six years, Bedford has served as the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), garnering a reputation as a mover and shaker with his implementation of progressive plans to diversify the museum’s collection and raise staff salaries. In 2018, for instance, the BMA announced plans to auction off works by white men to acquire pieces by artists of color; the following year, the museum said it would only acquire art by women in all of 2020.
Still, Bedford, who is white, may nonetheless be seen as a curious, if not altogether conservative, hire for SFMOMA, an institution still working to rebuild its reputation after several high-profile accusations of racism in 2020 and 2021.
His appointment as director was the unanimous recommendation of an internal search committee, which was assembled after Benezra announced his departure plans in 2021 and comprised of nine trustees. In a statement, the committee praised Bedford’s curatorial record, particularly his organizing of Mark Bradford’s U.S. Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale.
“We have found in Chris a brave, empathic, inclusive, and passionate leader; he is at a point in his career that combines impressive achievements with an open mindset and the ability to listen, learn, and evolve with and for our community,” the committee said in their statement. “He prioritizes collaboration, dialogue. and engagement across leadership, staff, and audiences—values and skills that are exactly what we were looking for.”
For their search, the committee “solicited input from over 300 individuals,” including members of the museum board, staff, and community, as well as artists and other directors.
Bedford, who will formally begin his new role in June, said the committee’s process captured his own vision for SFMOMA, which “is grounded in commitments to equity and artistic scholarship.”
“These values have been core to my work throughout my career, and I am very much looking forward to collaborating with SFMOMA leadership and staff to further define and develop the museum’s mission, priorities, and program,” he added. “This work will by necessity require much listening and learning on my part, and I am excited to begin the process when I arrive in San Francisco in June.”
The new gig may take some getting used to for Bedford, who in his current role oversees a $16.9 million budget, a $197.6 million endowment, and a staff of 182. SFMOMA, by comparison, has an annual budget of $53.4 million, an endowment of $500 million, and a staff of 360, according to the New York Times.
The museum is coming off a handful of tumultuous years. In July 2020 Gary Garrels, the institution’s long-tenured senior curator of painting and sculpture, resigned following a series of allegedly racist comments at a staff meeting. When questioned in the meeting about a previous remark he made about the museum’s commitment to collecting white artists, Garrels effectively doubled down, saying that not acquiring the work of white men would amount to “reverse discrimination.” (It hardly appears coincidental that at that same moment, not collecting white men was precisely what the BMA was doing.)
Benezra revealed his own plans to step down seven months later, in February 2021. Though he claimed that the move had been on his mind for years, outsiders nevertheless connected his decision with Garrels’s comments, as well as another racially charged moment wherein SFMOMA staff deleted a critical Instagram comment made by a Black former employee. (Benezra agreed to stay on as director until a successor was in place.)
In its announcement today, the museum explained that a “core team” for ensuring diversity, equity, and inclusion in the museum workplace has been established and that a strategic plan is forthcoming.
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