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 to focus on modern and contemporary art in the United States, offering a world-class exhibition program, a distinguished collection of 28,000 works, an annual attendance of 625,000 visitors, and award-winning educational and public programming. Benezra is also spearheading a $555 million, 235,000-square-foot expansion project, featuring a new building designed by the Oslo/New York-based architecture firm Snøhetta that is scheduled to open in 2016.

Under Benezra's leadership, SFMOMA has enjoyed landmark collections growth, pioneering joint acquisitions with other museums, including a Felix Gonzalez-Torres sculpture with the Art Institute of Chicago and Guggenheim Museum; a groundbreaking partnership to bring the renowned Doris and Donald Fisher Collection to SFMOMA; and an extensive collections campaign, which launched with 200 promised gifts by such artists as Francis Bacon, Joseph Beuys, Yves Klein, Jackson Pollock, David Smith, and many others.

During Benezra's tenure, SFMOMA has also experienced physical growth with the opening of the 14,400-square-foot Rooftop Garden in 2009 that has greatly broadened the museum's programming. Continuing this transformative work, Benezra leads the current expansion project that will significantly enlarge and enhance the museum's spaces and programming by doubling the current square footage of gallery space, increasing public circulation with new entrances and gathering places, and integrating a variety of education spaces throughout the building.

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. At the Art Institute of Chicago, Benezra worked closely with director and president James N. Wood to shape plans for the design of the Modern Wing by architect Renzo Piano. This 264,000-square-foot building expanded the museum's capacity for educational activities and increased exhibition space for the modern and contemporary art collection. In his curatorial capacity Benezra oversaw marked growth of the Art Institute's permanent collection of modern and contemporary art, acquiring major works by such artists as Robert Gober, Andreas Gursky, Ellsworth Kelly, Piero Manzoni, Brice Marden, Piet Mondrian, Giorgio Morandi, Jeff Wall, and Rachel Whiteread.

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 served at the Art Institute of Chicago as curator in the department of 20th-century painting and sculpture (promoted from associate curator in 1986). Benezra was curator at the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa from 1983 to 1985 and before that served as one of the first coordinators of the Anderson Collection here in the Bay Area.

During his nearly two decades in the museum field, Benezra has organized or co-organized such important retrospective exhibitions as 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). While at the Art Institute, he also completed a retrospective of the work of the Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz, which opened at the Hirshhorn Museum in 2001 and subsequently traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago; Contemporary Art Museum, Houston; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. At SFMOMA, Benezra co-organized the exhibition Pop! From San Francisco Collections (2004) and Jeff Wall (2007).

Among Benezra's publications are numerous essays and articles, such as "Renewing Modernism" (2000), a piece featured in the catalogue of SFMOMA's largest exhibition ever, Celebrating Modern Art: The Anderson Collection (2000).

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 Art Advisory Committee at the University of California, San Francisco; the International Advisory Committee for the 21st Century Museum in Kanazawa, Japan; the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver; 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 doctoral and master's degrees in the history of art from Stanford University; a master's degree in the history of art from the University of California, Davis; and a bachelor's degree with honors in the history of art and political science from the University of California, Berkeley.

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