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The Art of Subversion

Lending the embattled Fine Arts Museums stability—while also shaking things up.

Max Hollein poses in front of Sarah Lucas’s Dis-ease (2017) at the Legion of Honor.


It’s very near closing time at the Legion of Honor when I ask Max Hollein, the director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, to show me his favorite work in the collection. Hollein, dressed smartly in a blue two-button suit, is still new in town, having only arrived on the job last June from Frankfurt, where he managed three museums simultaneously. But he nods immediately and leads me across the atrium toward a pair of pieces by the French painter Georges de La Tour, Old Man and Old Woman (1618–19).

“They’re almost like abstract paintings,” Hollein says in his Austrian accent, as the din of patrons—mostly older ladies—starts fading toward the exits. It’s true: The geometric lines of the walls behind the figures are stark and forceful, while the two meticulously detailed characters at the fore are bathed in the intricate light and shadows for which La Tour is best known.

The works, part of the French baroque movement, are well in keeping with the Eurocentric, old-masters style that has long defined the Legion. And yet to reach the La Tours, we walk past a giant sculpture by the contemporary British sculptor Sarah Lucas, Margot (2015)—a plaster cast of a woman’s lower body lying atop an industrial icebox, a lone cigarette wedged into its anus.

Sarah Lucas, Nud Cycladic 7 (2010)

Hollein downplays the sculpture’s vulgarity—“It’s definitely got a British humor to it,” he says —but it’s about as dramatic a sign as you can get that changes are afoot here. A year and change into his tenure at the helm of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Hollein appears to be putting his artistic stamp on the city’s largest public museums. At the usually sleepy Legion, that’s meant staging the museum’s prized collection of Rodin sculptures alongside contemporary works including those of Lucas, the highly political, overtly feminist, and very raunchy member of the so-called Young British Artists movement. This month, the third and final Rodin pairing will be installed: a collection of paintings by Austrian master Gustav Klimt, whose work has never been exhibited on the West Coast.

His goals for the museums, Hollein says, are threefold: for the Fine Arts Museums to rely more heavily on their permanent collection and in-house curatorial expertise; to better articulate the aims of each of the organization’s two museums; and finally, to elevate their international standing among their peers. Hence the Lucas exhibit. Hollein says that by embracing more ambitious and daring programming—and connecting it to the permanent collection—he can accomplish all three.

It’s clear Hollein has big plans for the museums. What isn’t as clear is whether any amount of artistic vision and bold planning will be enough when it comes to his fourth—and unstated—goal: getting a grip on the systemic turmoil that has plagued the Fine Arts Museums over the past several years. Conversations with museum insiders paint a picture of chronic chaos, much of which came to light over a period of several months last year, when its curator emeritus described the museums as being “in a state of Orwellian dysfunction.”

Since the death in 2011 of longtime director John Buchanan, the museums have been in a near-constant state of flux: three different directors, shake-ups in senior management, a bitter labor dispute. Most scandalous, though, was a $450,000 payout made in 2015 to an ailing museum worker, approved by board of trustees chair Dede Wilsey. That payout eventually led to a whistleblower complaint against the museum, a $2 million settlement, a state audit, and the resignation in protest of several prominent board members. (Wilsey maintains that she never needed board approval for the payout.) Wilsey, contacted through her publicist, declined to be interviewed for this story, providing instead a statement on her relationship with Hollein that reads, “We share the same ambition: to grow the reputation of San Francisco’s museums internationally. Max has both the talent and the extensive international networks in the museum community to accomplish this goal.”

However, some of those familiar with the museums’ past troubles point the finger directly at Wilsey, who they say has stocked the board of trustees—which oversees the public trust that governs most of the museums’ functions—with sycophants and yes-men, some with little or no appreciation for fine art. They say that during the extended period while the museum was without an executive director, Wilsey meddled needlessly in the day-to-day operations of an institution with a $60 million annual budget and lorded over the board’s nominating committee, ensuring a compliant majority.

And to be clear, the board of the Fine Arts Museums is atypical for a major museum. Whereas board members at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York are all required to make minimum annual donations (often in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars), there is no such requirement at the Fine Arts Museums. That means board members are, for one thing, less likely to stand up to Wilsey, having less skin in the game, and, for another thing, less likely to be major art collectors in a position to donate artwork.

The troubles at the Fine Arts Museums go far deeper than just an unusual board and Wilsey’s overbearing style, however. The museums’ approximately $138 million endowment, already smaller than many other major public art museums’, has struggled to grow, and for a period, even basic accounting responsibilities were shirked. The result was a constant deficit that was reported to be between $2 million and $3 million in 2015–16. “We’re struggling for cash,” an unnamed insider told the Chronicle last summer.

All of which means that in addition to Hollein’s artistic goals for the museums, he also faces the Herculean managerial tasks of stabilizing a wayward ship and contending with the irksome politics of the board of trustees. All the while keeping a fickle public happy with two institutions under constant, if loving, scrutiny.


A key part of Hollein's platform, if one he’s a little more reluctant to discuss, is leveraging his own standing in the art world. “He brings that gravity of being from Europe,” says board member Belva Davis.

Part of his impressive Rolodex comes as his birthright: Hollein’s father, Hans, was a Pritzker Prize–winning postmodernist architect. Since childhood, the younger Hollein has been surrounded by artistic luminaries. (He recalls Joseph Beuys and Buckminster Fuller coming over to his house; the pop artist Claes Oldenburg was a family friend.) Despite his bohemian childhood, Hollein pursued both art history—with a focus on early Dutch painting—and business during college. That led him to an internship, and later a job, at the Guggenheim in New York, where he worked under Michael Govan, now the head of LACMA, and Thomas Krens, the legendary Guggenheim director. It was Hollein’s good fortune to join up just as the museum was preparingfor its reopening in 1992. As a result, Hollein was given responsibilities far above his otherwise lowly station as a curatorial assistant. “There was no one there because they were so busy,” he says. “The staff was completely overstretched.” 

Hollein eventually moved up to the level of chief of staff and manager of European institutions under Krens, before being offered his first directorial job in 2001, overseeing the Schirn Kunsthalle, a non-collecting public exhibition space in Frankfurt. At 31, Hollein was the museum’s youngest director. But he distinguished himself in short order. Hollein recalls one of his first major exhibitions, Henri Matisse: Drawing with Scissors, as exemplary of his youthful enthusiasm: To secure the artistic loans for the exhibition, Hollein traveled to New York to meet with the widow of Pierre Matisse (the son of Henri), who had been Matisse’s gallerist. Knowing that she, like him, had lived in Vienna, Hollein brought along an Austrian Sacher torte for her birthday. “I said, ‘I’m this guy from Vienna running a museum you’ve never heard of, but would you support it?’” (She did.)

Within five years, Hollein had also taken charge of Frankfurt’s Städel Museum and the sculpture collection of the Liebieghaus. During his time running the three spaces, he developed into a sort of art-world wunderkind. In 2012, he oversaw a $69 million expansion of the Städel that doubled its size and added a wing for contemporary art. (And, unusually for European museums, much of that expansion was financed privately.) He staged exhibitions of Jeff Koons and Edvard Munch and a blockbuster 2008 show on women impressionists that introduced him to Wilsey, who’d lent artworks to the exhibition. (It later traveled to the de Young.) All told, Hollein helped the Städel increase its endowment by 50 percent and raised the Schirn’s attendance by 300 percent. “In Frankfurt,” Tina Mendelsohn, a German arts journalist, told Cultured magazine, “Max Hollein is perceived to be a genius.”

Soon, Hollein, who also sits on the boards of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, was being short-listed for some of the top museum jobs in the world: In 2008, his name was floated for the vacant director position at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and later for the top job at the Guggenheim. In 2014, he was under consideration to head the Centre Pompidou in Paris. When news broke in March 2016 that he’d been hired to fill the director position at the Fine Arts Museums, the response from the art world was universal: San Francisco had hooked a big fish. “He’s on the world stage,” says Peter Trippi, editor of Fine Art Connoisseur magazine.

Which leads one to wonder, given the state of affairs he inherited in San Francisco, whether he truly understood what he was stepping into.

Despite our deep civic pride, San Francisco is not one of the world’s premier art markets. It is not New York, not Los Angeles. (Many people speculate that Hollein’s predecessor at the Fine Arts Museums, Colin Bailey, who bolted for New York after just under two years on the job, never took to San Francisco.) And while the de Young and the Legion of Honor combine for an impressive attendance—at 1.4 million, they jointly rank among the top five museums in the world—in art circles they are considered to possess only middling permanent collections (with the exceptions of the de Young’s costume and textile department and its pre-20th-century American and New Guinean artworks).

So what brought this rising star to the Bay? A salary of close to $1 million, for one thing—which, while broadly in line with the compensations for other large institutions’ directors, represents a significant bump over previous leaders’ pay at the Fine Arts Museums. And then there’s the still largely untapped gold mine of philanthropic money in Silicon Valley waiting to be extracted. “There’s a perception that San Francisco has deep pockets,” Trippi says. “There’s no place on earth like Silicon Valley. That would be intriguing to an aspiring director.”

Indeed, there are hints that San Francisco’s art-market potential is starting to be realized: The Untitled art fair expanded to the city in January for the first time, Pace Gallery has opened outposts in Menlo Park and Palo Alto, and noted gallerists Larry Gagosian and John Berggruen have each opened spaces locally in the past year. And of course there’s the elephant in the room: SFMOMA’s major expansion in 2016.

Thus far, it seems Hollein’s presence in the director’s chair has helped cool things down. Last year, the board named him CEO and changed Wilsey’s title from president—a termless position—to board chair. The messaging of the twin moves seemed clear: There’s a new sheriff in town.

Since then, he has hired a new CFO, a director of development, and a curator of contemporary art and restructured upper management. Hollein is careful not to disparage his predecessors, but he makes it clear that there was work to be done putting the museum’s financial house back in order. Addressing those behind-the-scenes troubles, he says, has been the most important shake-up he’s made since arriving. “They’re very mundane,” he says. “They’re not things the public should be concerned about.”

That hands-on attitude has already borne fruit. A half-baked plan he inherited to exhibit Summer of Love–era posters at the de Young was expanded into a major summer hit. He’s also overseen the revamping of the museums’ websites, instituted a digital-education campaign, and, of course, helped bring in the Klimt paintings. Then there’s the Lucas exhibit—refreshing evidence, some say, of Hollein’s artistic vision replacing that of Wilsey, whose tastes run somewhat more pink.

Back at the Legion, Hollein and I walk into the Rodin Gallery, where several more of Lucas’s sculptures, including a series of painted toilets, stand in stark contrast to the classically beautiful Rodins. I ask him again about the wisdom of installing such risqué pieces alongside the old warhorses. Hollein points to a nearby Rodin, The Temptation of St. Anthony (1889–90). The figure is bent backward over a rock, arms covering her face, her breasts exposed. The sexual energy in it equals that in any of Lucas’s pieces.

Standing there, between the conventionally beautiful and the intentionally explicit, Hollein explains that although the works employ vastly different aesthetics, they comment on the same themes. Art can, after all, do two things at once.


Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco 

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