Exactly one year after the last director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), Neal Benezra, announced he would step down from the post he has held since 2002, the museum has named Christopher Bedford his replacement.
Bedford, who will start in June, has served as the Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director at the Baltimore Museum of Art since August of 2016. During Bedford’s tenure, he championed diversifying the museum’s holdings and elevating underrepresented artists, something worked into the museum’s long-term planning. However, to fund the proposed Endowment for the Future equity initiative and operational expenses like minimum wage increases, Bedford had planned the controversial deaccessioning of three paintings from the museum’s collection in the fall of 2020, expecting to raise a total of $65 million.
That sale was called off after a storm of criticism from the art community, but it did lead to donors stepping up to help fill the gap. Without money from the sale in hand, the museum instead moved to implement its equity and diversity planning over a longer time frame and fundraise for the money. In 2019, Bedford announced that the museum would only acquire art from women artists for the entirety of 2020.
“I want to thank the search committee for a thoughtful and engaging interview process,” said Bedford in the museum’s February 9 announcement, “which captured a vision for SFMOMA that 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. 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 SFMOMA’s decision makes sense, especially as the search committee prioritized leaders who would forefront diversity and inclusivity in their programming. As the New York Times points out, in 2020 the museum grappled with the departure of its top curator, Gary Garrels, after pledging the museum would continue to collect art from white artists. His public comments on “reverse discrimination” in a year where structural racism in art institutions was put under a microscope led to subsequent and successful calls for his resignation.
Bedford will also have to deal with the museum’s budget issues. Although SFMOMA has a much larger budget than the Baltimore Museum of Art—$53.4 million and a half-billion-dollar endowment versus $16.9 million and a $197 million endowment—the institution came under fire last year for slashing the long-running film program and online publication Open Space to save costs.