It is with great sadness that I share news of the death of Elaine McKeon (1925–2012), who passed away yesterday morning. A vital and unforgettable member of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s family, a very dear friend to me personally, and an unparalleled figure in the wider arts and civic community has been lost today. It would be impossible to overstate the generosity and commitment that Elaine brought to SFMOMA during the nearly thirty years she was involved with this institution; her patronage and stewardship mark a pivotal chapter in the museum’s history. From the masterpieces she helped bring into the collection to the opening of our current landmark building, Elaine always inspired us to pursue our dreams, and she helped secure SFMOMA’s position as a cultural leader locally, nationally, and internationally.
No facet of this institution was untouched by her passionate leadership. Elaine motivated us all by her vivid example—no task was too small for her personal attention, nor too daunting for her to conquer. She was a tireless and persuasive advocate for our museum and especially vocal in her heartfelt commitment to our dedicated staff. I feel so fortunate to have had the chance to work so closely with her.
“SFMOMA owes a great debt to Elaine McKeon—she is woven into the fabric of this city’s philanthropic spirit,” says SFMOMA Board Chair Charles R. Schwab. “The legacy of her devotion to SFMOMA and her civic-mindedness are inspirational to us all. Her leadership by enthusiasm, tireless fundraising skills, and endless commitment have raised SFMOMA to unimagined heights. I will personally miss Elaine’s witty sense of humor, dedication, and vision.”
An SFMOMA trustee since 1986, McKeon served as Board president from 1989 to 1995, as chair of the Board from 1995 to 2004, and as chair emeritus since 2004. She stepped into her leading role as Board president just after the museum’s move to our Third Street location and has since brought an incredible vision of expansion to fruition, with many ambitions realized and surpassed.
McKeon’s tenure as Board chair spanned a period of remarkable change for the institution. Perhaps most visible among these achievements has been the museum’s exhibition program, which featured centennial retrospectives of Alexander Calder and Ansel Adams; critically acclaimed monographic exhibitions of Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt, and Diane Arbus; groundbreaking presentations of important private collections such as the Anderson Collection of modern art, the Kramlich Collection of media arts, and the Djerassi collection of works by Paul Klee; and attendance record-setting successes such as the René Magritte and Marc Chagall exhibitions.
Under McKeon’s chairmanship, the museum’s collection underwent unprecedented expansion. Such dynamic growth led The New York Times in 1999 to declare, “No American museum has been as big a player in acquiring the best contemporary art available as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.” The list of important accessions includes critical groupings of works by such modern and contemporary figures as Robert Adams, Matthew Barney, Eva Hesse, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Yves Klein, Sol LeWitt, Gordon Matta-Clark, Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol, among many others.
McKeon’s leadership accomplishments also include the recruitment of two museum directors—myself, from the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002, and my predecessor, David A. Ross, from the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1998. Her commitment to fiscal discipline ensured SFMOMA’s stability when economic conditions shifted dramatically. Long-term strategic planning for institutional growth brought about the 2002 construction of the innovative Koret Visitor Education Center, which set a new standard for education facilities in the museum world; the doubling in size of the MuseumStore; the addition of the MuseumStore in the SFO international terminal; and the reconfiguration of the museum’s entrance and public atrium in 2004. In addition, the bright and exciting era of her guidance witnessed the unparalleled growth of the museum’s membership to a current total of more than 45,000 members. She was a key supporter of SF20, San Francisco’s twentieth-century design show at Fort Mason Center, which benefits SFMOMA and the architecture and design department, and she was chair of SFMOMA’s 2007 Modern Ball.
McKeon distinguished herself in the San Francisco Bay Area as a businesswoman, philanthropist, and civic volunteer. She served as chair of the board of McKeon Construction from 1977 to 1981 and as general partner of the publicly traded E&J Properties since 1981. McKeon’s professional expertise was also expressed through her leadership at St. Mary’s College in Moraga (as president of the Board of Regents and later chair of the Board of Trustees) and with countless other Bay Area educational, civic, and cultural groups over the past thirty years.
Speaking personally, I will always remember Elaine as a great leader, but also as a fun-loving, wonderfully spirited woman, who cared deeply for the family and many friends she nurtured, and for the museum that she supported so passionately.
Our heartfelt condolences go immediately to Elaine’s family and friends. Her generous spirit, enthusiasm, and dedication to SFMOMA will be missed by us all.
–Neal Benezra, SFMOMA director
A public memorial service will take place at SFMOMA on Monday, January 16, 2012 . The program will begin at 6 p.m. in the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Atrium, followed by a reception at 7 p.m. in the Rooftop Garden. Please enter on Third Street. Valet parking will be available. The museum galleries, MuseumStore, and Caffè Museo will close early, at 3 p.m., that day. For more information about the service, the public may call 415.357.4000.