Talking to Neal Benezra

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I was out in San Francisco last week to catch an advance look at the William Kentridge show that opened March 14 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art — more on that later — and to check in on the nearly complete rooftop sculpture garden that SFMOMA is building on top of its adjacent parking garage. (Opens May 10.) While I was there I also grabbed lunch with SFMOMA Director Neal Benezra. No surprise, we talked mostly about the questions that preoccupy museum people these days as they try to keep their heads above water in trying times.

Oddly, a couple of things we discussed as hypotheticals actually occurred in the days right after our lunch. One was whether, as a way to discourage panic deaccessioning, the Association of Art Museum Directors might take on an advisory role for floundering museums. No sooner had I gotten back to New York when the AAMD and the National Academy in New York jointly announced ways that the AAMD would assist the beleaguered Academy to get on a firmer financial footing. Something else Benezra and I discussed was whether museums might post on their websites advance word of their intentions whenever they decide to sell specific works from their collections. Sure enough, a few days ago the Indianapolis Museum of Art announced its intention to do just that, adopting a pre-sale information policy that’s far and away the most transparent of any museum I know of. Clairvoyancy was not involved here. These are just the conversations that everybody has these days.

Anyway, here’s some of the conversation we had that day.

LACAYO: What kind of public money does SFMOMA get, if any?

BENEZRA: In the past we’ve gotten about $525,000 a year, more in some years, through a city program called Grants for the Arts that raises revenue through a portion of the tax on hotel charges. Now, with the state’s budget problems, which have an impact on the city, it looks like it will be less than $525,000 in the coming budget. [LACAYO: For purposes of comparison, that amount would be about one percent of SFMOMA’s annual operating budget.]

LACAYO: Have you increased admission prices in recent years?

BENEZRA: No, when I got here [in 2002] we were at $10. In 2004 or 2005 we went to $12.50. But clearly we have to look at that going forward. [Lacayo: As I learned from SFMOMA this week, admission at the museum will be going to $15 on May 30, not long after the sculpture garden opens.]

LACAYO: What was your attendance last year?

BENEZRA: Most years we’ve been at about 600,000. Last year it was over 700,000 because we had the great Frieda Kahlo show, which drew enormous crowds.

LACAYO: With so many museums hurting financially, there’s non-stop discussion about just how and when to sell things from the permanent collection.

BENEZRA: Deaccessioning is the third rail of American museums and there’s a lot of concern about this. Like a lot of museums we have material in our basements at this museum that we simply don’t show. I came to San Francisco from the Hirschhorn, where we had a very methodical deaccessioning program for years. So we came up with a program here where first we deaccessioned works that were out of the scope of our program as a modern art museum. We had things like Goya prints that really didn’t belong. We hired a staff member who runs the program under the direction of the curators and me. And then four or five years ago we started a program to look at our holdings by decade. This is just paintings and sculpture so far. We would look at our holdings by decades, starting from 1900-1910, to see what our strengths and weaknesses were and what we could legitimately part with. Every year we look at another decade.

LACAYO: But when your museum sells things the money goes to purchase more art, which is okay by the guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors. The real bone of contention is whether it’s ever justified for a museum to sell work from its collection to raise emergency funds for general outlays, which the AAMD forbids. A few months ago it pretty much blacklisted the National Academy Museum in New York after the Academy sold two paintings to raise money to keep its museum open, something it had done a few times before. Now the Association has urged its member museums not to lend pictures to National Academy shows or send their shows to the Academy. In as much as more museums might find themselves in very difficult straits in the next few years, why can’t the AAMD come up with a more flexible system for responding to emergencies? It could be some of kind of early warning system that identifies genuinely failing institutions and grants them a waiver to sell. At the least, shouldn’t the Association establish a system that allows offenders like the National Academy to return to the AAMD and get loans of art again from other museums once they get their house in order?

BENEZRA: The museum community has not thought this through sufficiently. It’s true you don’t want every museum facing a deficit in its operating budget to see its collection as an asset to be parted with. As for an early warning system — there’s a lot of experience on that AAMD board, or among museum directors generally. Sometimes a museum gets into a spot and needs help. So why couldn’t a couple of senior museum directors, when they get the early warning signal, go out and make a visit, meet with the board, meet with the director, and see if there’s some other alternatives?

LACAYO: One objection to this idea that’s been suggested to me is that AAMD doesn’t have much of a full time staff. It can’t really take on the burden of playing a centralized surveillance role for the finances of member museums.

BENEZRA: That’s certainly true, but that’s not what should be expected. Our function should be advisory, simply to help institutions that are genuinely struggling.

One other thing. There are lots of solid museum deaccession programs around the country that are not talked about much in the press. I’ve been happy that our’s is not on the radar screen because it must mean we’ve been doing a pretty good job. Things are sold publicly, it’s very transparent, the board approves everything.

LACAYO: Right, but is being “off the radar screen” always a good thing? What do you think of the idea that, as a way to increase public confidence in the deaccessioning process, museums should announce on their websites the pieces they would like to sell before those are consigned to an auction house or private sellers? I appreciate that museums don’t want to set off a controversy every time they decide to sell something, but one thing that makes the deaccessioning process seem clandestine is that most of the time people only learn that a piece is being sold when it turns up in the sales catalogue of an auction house.

BENEZRA: We have nothing to hide, so I don’t see why that couldn’t be given serious consideration.

LACAYO: Two years ago we had a conversation in which you mentioned that once your new sculpture garden was done it might be time for SFMOMA to think about expanding, perhaps with a satellite building on land the museum already owns. That was before the financial downturn. Is that still a prospect?

BENEZRA: We had gone through a planning process and contemplated a capital campaign in the spring of last year. We do have property and we do need to expand. When we came to this building in 1995 we had 13,000 objects. now we have 26,000 or 27,000. But with the — hopefully temporary — demise of the economy, we’ve had to put that on the back burner. We’re still planning and thinking, but very informally.