Staff Profile

Neal Benezra, Director

Neal Benezra
Neal Benezra, photo: Winni Wintermeyer

Neal Benezra became the director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) in 2002. A Bay Area native, he leads one of the first museums in the United States to focus on modern and contemporary art, offering a world-class exhibition program, a distinguished collection of more than 30,000 works, and award-winning educational and public programming. Benezra is currently spearheading a major transformation of SFMOMA funded by a $610 million capital campaign. The project includes a 235,000-square-foot building expansion designed in collaboration with the Oslo/New York–based architecture firm Snøhetta, scheduled to open in 2016. Under Benezra’s leadership, SFMOMA has enjoyed landmark collections growth; pioneering partnerships with artists, collectors, and cultural institutions, locally, nationally, and internationally; and extraordinary facility and staff growth.

 Alongside the expansion of the museum’s physical site, Benezra envisions an extensive enhancement of SFMOMA’s programs, collections, and education services. Upon completion, the museum’s expanded building will host a 15,500-square-foot photography center, the largest of its kind in the United States; house more than twice the gallery space as before; and allow free access for visitors ages 18 and under. Benezra is also overseeing an ambitious collections campaign that has brought in more than 1,000 works by artists including Francis Bacon, Joseph Beuys, Yves Klein, Agnes Martin, Jackson Pollock, David Smith, and many others. Benezra has taken an innovative approach to the museum’s current two-and-a-half-year building closure, launching an extensive off-site programming initiative—SFMOMA On the Go—featuring exhibitions, public art installations, and educational programs developed with cultural partners throughout the Bay Area and beyond.

Benezra’s collaborative approach has significantly extended the museum’s programming and collection, as well as its role in the local and international community. SFMOMA has enjoyed pioneering joint acquisitions with other museums, including a William Kentridge work with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a Felix Gonzalez-Torres sculpture with the Art Institute of Chicago and Guggenheim Museum, and a groundbreaking partnership that will bring the renowned Doris and Donald Fisher Collection to SFMOMA. Benezra has also championed deeper collaborations with artists, increasing seats for artists on the museum’s Board of Trustees such as recent appointees Ed Ruscha and Vincent Fecteau; providing free lifetime memberships to all living artists with work in the collection, currently numbering some 3,000 with an average of 120 artists added annually; and launching the museum’s Artist Initiative, supported by a $1.75 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to bring artists’ voices to the center of conservation and collections work.

Benezra formerly served as deputy director and Frances and Thomas Dittmer Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, a dual position he assumed in 2000. Previously, he spent eight years at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where he was assistant director for art and public programs (1996–99) and chief curator (1991–96). From 1985 to 1991, Benezra was a curator in the department of 20th-century painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago. He was a curator at the Des Moines Art Center from 1983 to 1985, and before that served as one of the first coordinators of the Anderson Collection in the Bay Area.

During his nearly two decades in the museum field, Benezra has organized or co-organized numerous important exhibitions, such as Mark di Suvero at Crissy Field (2013, SFMOMA); Jeff Wall (2007, SFMOMA); Pop! From San Francisco Collections (2004, SFMOMA); Edward Ruscha (2000, Hirshhorn Museum); Bruce Nauman (1994, Hirshhorn Museum and Walker Art Center); Martin Puryear (1991, The Art Institute of Chicago); and Robert Arneson (1986, Des Moines Art Center).

Throughout his career, Benezra has served on professional panels and advisory committees, including the Pew Fellowships in the Arts; the National Endowment for the Arts; the National Endowment for the Humanities; the Art Advisory Panel of the Internal Revenue Service; the Smithsonian Institution Council; the International Advisory Committee for the 21st Century Museum in Kanazawa, Japan; and CIMAM (Comité international pour les musées et les collections d’art modern). He currently serves on the Acquisition Committee for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the Advisory Board of Istanbul Modern.

Benezra holds both a PhD and an MA in the history of art from Stanford University; an MA in the history of art from the University of California, Davis; and a BA with honors in the history of art and political science from the University of California, Berkeley.


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Neal Benezra, Photo: Chris Rauber

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