Quick Talk: Last Part of Benezra

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Let’s finish up that talk with SFMOMA Director Neal Benezra.

LACAYO: Are there trends in the museum world that you fear? What keeps you up at night?

BENEZRA: One of the things I think a lot about is that there was a time when the values that museums held and the established patterns of behavior that museums acted upon were pretty well understood. There were shared values. Now the world is changing and it’s impacting museums. It’s not so clear anymore what those shared assumptions are. It’s a little bit more of a free for all out there. When you don’t know what the established acceptable behavior is, it’s hard to know what to fall back on.

LACAYO: Are you talking about the occasional dumbing down of shows or about how museums cater to corporate sponsors?

BENEZRA: Could be either thing.

LACAYO: Do you have a policy about what you will and will not do to accommodate a corporate sponsor?

BENEZRA: We would not be a mouthpiece for a corporation, we would not do a “brand”. We have a BMW in the museum now. [Lacayo: This is a car that Eliasson and his team stripped down and remade as an art project that comments on global warming and internal combustion engines. To view it visitors have to put on blankets and enter a refrigeration unit. It's a long story] But this car can’t be sold. By making it, Eliasson was challenging the very nature of what a car is today.

LACAYO: What one thing would make your job easier?

BENEZRA: I wish the government would reassess this fractional gift thing. This was something that was not broken and didn’t need to be fixed. There was not abuse. Certainly not here there wasn’t.

And something has to be done about insurance. We’re in earthquake territory. We’re in a 10-year-old building that’s as rock solid as could be. But because of our geography, we’re having a terrible time with insurance. This spring we had the Brice Marden show from MoMA and the Picasso and American Art show from the Whitney both here at the same time. The insurance value of the art on loan to us at that time was close to a billion dollars. We had such an insurance problem. There’s a federal indemnification program for international loans. What we’re lobbying very hard for now is that the indemnification program should work for domestic loans as well.

LACAYO: One of your earlier jobs was “coordinator” of the Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson Collection, one of the richest collections of modern art in the Bay Area or anywhere in the U.S. Your museum, which already has a gallery dedicated to works on loan from their collection, would no doubt love to inherit some or most of it some day. You no doubt felt the same about the collection assembled by Don Fisher, the founder of The Gap stores, who’s on your board of trustees. But Fisher made a decision last summer to put most of his collection into a private museum that he hopes to build in the Presidio. Do you have a line in your mind as to what you would do to convince a big donor to leave his or her collection to you? Separate galleries? Their own curator? A guarantee to show everything they leave all the time?

BENEZRA: We don’t have a set of rules. I think there is an understanding here. If you walk through our building you see a gallery dedicated to Clyfford Still. That collection came to the museum around 1980, when the museum was at a different point in its history, and the collection was not yet what it has become. It made more sense then to say, ok, we’ll always dedicate that space to Clyfford Still. He made a very generous gift, and we brought it in and it’s been a perfectly good thing.

Whether we would want to do that at this point in our history — I think we don’t. What we don’t want to become is a museum that’s a collection of collections. You can’t tell the story that way. You walk into the Museum of Modern Art in New York and you learn the history of modern art — as they wish to tell it, but there’s an attempt to tell a story there. If we were to have a wing dedicated to a particular collection or collector, we couldn’t do that. We would become a different kind of institution.

One thing about Don Fisher that I’ve come to really appreciate is that for 20, 25 years now he has not just accumulated that collection, he’s been the curator. He has space in the corporate headquarters where he hangs those pictures. And he takes incredible pleasure in this independence that he has as a curator. Don is at a point in his life where the last thing he wants to do is give up that pleasure. As a human story it makes perfect sense to me. Do I wish that collection were here? Absolutely.