Museum on the Edge

Thomas Campbell had been the head of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco for less than 18 months when COVID-19 struck. Then came a long-overdue reckoning with racism. His response: Launch the biggest, boldest, and most inclusive art exhibition in the city’s history.

thomas campbell, director and ceo of the fine arts museums of san francisco, outside the de young museum, in golden gate park

On the evening of June 19, some 100 protesters gathered at the Music Concourse in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The oval-shaped expanse includes a columned, half-domed band shell, the Spreckels Temple of Music, anchoring the south side; an open plaza of trees and fountains in its center; and museums—the California Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum—framing it to the east and west, respectively. Since March, an empty white Ferris wheel installed in once-hopeful celebration of the park’s 150th anniversary has fanned 150 feet above the north side, directly behind a memorial to Francis Scott Key, national anthem lyric author and slave owner. Monuments to other figures pepper the concourse at irregular intervals, their relevance obscure (why Goethe and Schiller? why Leonidas or Cervantes?).

The protesters on this Juneteenth had come for the statues. Like people across the world in the month since George Floyd had been murdered by police in Minneapolis, they came with signs and slogans, many dressed all in black. They also brought paint and ropes, soon pulling down a 30-foot effigy of Saint Junípero Serra, founder of California missions and enslaver of Native Americans, along with his even taller cross. Then they moved on to Francis Scott Key, followed by Ulysses S. Grant.

By the time the crowd dispersed, statues were on the ground, benches and fountains vandalized, Cervantes defaced. Among other messages scrawled across the concourse, the words “OLONE [sic] LAND” were written in yellow spray paint on Serra’s empty base, calling to mind a line from a traditional Ohlone song that feels especially relevant right now: “On the edge of the world, I am dancing.”

Thomas Campbell, who’d been the director of the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor (collectively known as the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, or FAMSF; disclosure: Alta editor and publisher William R. Hearst III is a FAMSF trustee) for less than 20 months, could not have anticipated a global pandemic and protests, much less iconoclasm, just yards from the de Young’s doors. But no stranger to turmoil, he’s willing to pursue possibility in the breach—a dance on the edge of what’s precarious and what’s possible.

Three months earlier, on the evening of March 13, the de Young had closed its doors in response to COVID-19 for an unknown duration (though at the time, a few weeks seemed likely). Ten days later, the museum marked its 125-year anniversary as just another shuttered edifice in the city. Then, on March 30, it announced a juried show for all Bay Area artists, an exhibition of immense scale, inherent complexity, and straightforward generosity: The de Young Open. The theme would be “On the Edge.”

The museum offered artists from any of the Bay Area’s nine counties the opportunity to submit two works during a free submission period from June 1 to June 14. From a potential pool of more than 12,000 entries, jurors—museum curators Timothy Anglin Burgard, Claudia Schmuckli, and Karin Breuer, along with celebrated local artists Enrique Chagoya, Hung Liu, and Mildred Howard—would select between 1,200 and 1,500 works to install in the de Young’s Herbst galleries whenever the museum reopened. This astonishing number, meant to be as inclusive as possible, would be accommodated by hanging two-dimensional work “Academy-style,” meaning wall to wall and nearly floor to ceiling, a crazy quilt of current Bay Area art. Participants would, further, be allowed to sell those works directly to the public, with no cut to the museum (galleries, in comparison, typically take 50 percent of sales).

So many wins—for artists, art lovers, the museum, the city, the Bay Area as a whole. But success in the time of COVID-19 is never so straightforward.

“It wasn’t clear how long the shelter-in-place order would go on for and if we would have to move exhibitions around or not,” Campbell said of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it was soon inevitable. “I had to make the decision to put off Judy Chicago by a year.” This was a blow. The de Young was set to host the first career retrospective for the renowned feminist artist in early May. It was a safe and sane decision, if disappointing, and it meant a hole in the exhibition schedule as well as empty galleries.

In preparation for the museum’s 125th year in 2020, Campbell had earlier assembled a small group to brainstorm ways to celebrate the anniversary. “One of the ideas proposed, an idea that must be credited to Tim Burgard, was that we would put on an open invitation to all artists in the Bay Area,” he said. Burgard, senior curator of American art, had recently overseen a moving Bay Area makeover of the popular exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983. Campbell liked Burgard’s idea but had no clear picture of how to slot it into a then-crowded exhibition schedule.

On June 19, 2020, anti-racist protesters in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park pulled down a statue of Francis Scott Key. The monument had stood outside the de Young Museum.
On June 19, 2020, anti-racist protesters in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park pulled down a statue of Francis Scott Key. The monument had stood outside the de Young Museum.

Then COVID-19 happened. “We realized not only would this be an opportunity to advance the Open invitational,” Campbell said, “but it would be an exhibition that would really feel relevant in this moment for two reasons: Firstly, we’ve got all these artists in the Bay Area who are stuck at home, whose careers are presumably challenged, like so many people’s.… So this would be an opportunity to put the spotlight on them, give them some recognition, and, if they’re able to sell their work, help give them some financial support. And the second reason is that…we all have to think about our community. While we may or may not go back to traveling exhibitions in the future, I have to believe that for the next two to three years, our top priority is to engage with our community.” This is an unusual take for the director of a major museum, where blockbuster exhibitions of blue-chip international artists—whether contemporary or of the past—have been the financial lifeblood for decades, maybe forever.

I was talking with Campbell in early June over video between my home in San Francisco’s Inner Richmond and his home elsewhere in the city. We’d planned to meet weeks earlier, at the museum, when it was assumed the need to shelter in place would by then have passed. It was, of course, far from over. Our meeting kept getting rescheduled until, finally, it was virtual or nothing.

We had some difficulty getting the video chat to work, and then the sound started going in and out. “What else can go wrong but technology?” I said, only half joking, as Campbell moved from one part of his home to another, where the sound problems got better, then resumed, and then the recording stopped.

He eventually settled on his couch, where he looked somehow younger, a bit slouched, his tousled hair and white button-down shirt reading as relaxed, though being a museum director must be anything but relaxing right now. Like anyone working from home, he wasn’t wearing a tie, and I realized I’d never seen a picture of him without one. Campbell speaks in the careful, measured sentences of someone used to talking with the press, never too carried away by emotion. Even after decades in the United States, his British accent sounds, to this native of the American West, distinctly upper-class.

Campbell was born in Singapore and raised in Cambridge, England, where he attended a private boys’ school before studying at Oxford and, later, the equally reputable Courtauld Institute of Art in London, where he obtained a PhD focused on the understudied field of European tapestries. A largely overlooked gold mine of European art history, tapestries made his name. By early 1995, he was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the largest art museum in the United States, with one of the world’s most comprehensive and important collections. For a long time, his career at the Met had all the hallmarks of a fairy tale. He was known as Tapestry Tom, a wunderkind who spearheaded the 2002 surprise blockbuster Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence, which attracted some 215,000 visitors, double its projections.

Then, after nearly 14 years of widely admired work as a curator and scholar, Campbell was the unexpected choice to succeed Phillippe de Montebello, whose three-decade tenure as director of the Met made him almost synonymous with the great institution in the minds of many (not least, Montebello himself). It was a position Campbell hadn’t campaigned for, and he seemed as shocked as anyone to be tapped for the directorship. But why not? Such was his career so far, a steady climb upward.

A pedestal for an already removed Saint Junípero Serra statue was graffitied by the protesters.
A pedestal for an already removed Saint Junípero Serra statue was graffitied by the protesters.

But, like all fairy tales, this one included steep challenges, beginning with Campbell’s first months on the job, which coincided with the depths of the 2008–2009 financial crisis. And though he reassured museum trustees that there might be opportunity in such a drastic downturn—more art on the market, more eager sellers—finances would haunt his eight-year directorship at the Met, even when the economy was back to booming.

While attendance numbers at the Met grew ever stronger, there was considerable new spending. Campbell invested in digitizing the collection and in social media as well as spearheading a new embrace of modern and contemporary art, which included taking over the former Whitney Museum of American Art building for what would become the short-lived Met Breuer. In one of his final bravura moments with the Met, Campbell presided over the annex’s opening in March 2016. However, after shutting down owing to COVID-19 this past March, the Met Breuer announced in June that it would not reopen. By then, Campbell had been gone three years.

In February 2017, he’d stepped down as director after a flaming media season of leaked snark from trustees, among others at the Met. He retreated—in the pleasurable sense as well as the tactical one—to scholarship, winning a prestigious Getty Rothschild Fellowship to pursue research on, of all things, the future. Specifically, Campbell wrote, the “geo-political, economic and digital challenges” facing the art world but also how art might offer “a gateway to promote understanding in an ever-more connected but ever-more divided world.” Such research would serve the world well right now, but Campbell was soon tempted away from the ivory tower.

In a mind-boggling switch-up, soon after the Met named Max Hollein, then the director of FAMSF, as Campbell’s replacement, Campbell was tapped to take Hollein’s former position in San Francisco. Get that? This “simple” exchange of museum heads speaks volumes about the insular (read: white, male, often European) world of major art institutions, particularly among top jobs. That doesn’t mean the positions at the Met and FAMSF are equal. While Hollein left San Francisco to helm the United States’ most celebrated art collection, Campbell’s relocation to California might be seen as a move from the center of the art world to its edge.

Campbell, it seems, felt otherwise, telling Artnet that when Hollein was being considered for the director’s position in San Francisco, he encouraged him to take it. “I felt it was such an interesting museum in such an interesting location, with such potential,” Campbell said. Hollein lasted just 22 months, and by the time Campbell took his place, FAMSF had seen four directors in 10 years.

Though Campbell would now run both the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park and, three miles away, the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park (a collection he hopes will become “a Frick of the West Coast”), the two museums combined had fewer than 500 employees, compared with some 2,000 at the Met. Even so, Campbell now had a much smaller budget and was burdened with a reputation for not being savvy with museum finances in the past. With a limited endowment of $138 million (as of June 2019), compared with the Met’s $3.6 billion, FAMSF is dependent on money from the city of San Francisco, private donations, and—of special concern now—ticket sales and memberships.

Campbell arrived in San Francisco in late 2018 with just six months of exhibition programming in place, planning that usually takes years. Needing to arrange something quickly, he was able to land two traveling shows, the Tate Modern’s Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power for fall 2019 and a show that had originated at the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico as Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo for spring 2020. But rather than bring them in “as is,” Campbell empowered curators to bring out their Bay Area roots.

Soul of a Nation, in particular, embraced the local community. A preview breakfast included not just press but also Black artists who’d made work in the 1960s and ’70s, some of it celebrating fellow Bay Area activists, like Angela Davis and the Black Panthers. Hearing those names alongside phrases like “Black Power” spoken in Campbell’s proper-sounding accent was both fun and a tribute to the global reach of Black art and history. Also notable, though, was the fact that while the artists were Black, the assembled curators were white. (Similarly, the jury for The de Young Open consists of white curators and artists of color.) The lack of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) curators and higher administrators at museums is a pervasive, nationwide problem. So is engagement with BIPOC communities where American museums are located.

Opening day for Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983 at the de Young Museum in the fall of 2019. Campbell encouraged the show’s curators to emphasize its Bay Area connections.
Opening day for Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983 at the de Young Museum in the fall of 2019. Campbell encouraged the show’s curators to emphasize its Bay Area connections.

But at that same breakfast, Campbell announced an important new initiative. The previous spring, FAMSF had kicked off “Free Saturdays” for San Francisco residents. Now the weekly free admission would be extended to all residents of the Bay Area’s nine counties. This boon meant far more people, including underserved populations, could visit what became a hugely popular show. Unfortunately, Soul of a Nation had to close on the eve of its final weekend. Meanwhile, in a gallery upstairs, Frida Kahlo—an expected blockbuster—was newly installed but had not yet opened to the public, while Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI, one of just a handful of homegrown shows since Campbell came aboard as director, a lively kinetic installation filled with light and sound, went dark.

In the first two days of the de Young Open submission period, some 2,500 artists entered work. By the end of it, the museum had received 11,521 entries from 6,191 people.

The submissions portal opened seven days after the murder of George Floyd. Entries included numerous Floyd portraits and tributes, art responding to the ongoing protests, and pieces grappling with the realities of life in quarantine. This art was made in the beating heart of a historical moment, a rupture that “feels as foundational as the moment when the Berlin Wall came down,” according to de Young contemporary art curator and exhibit juror Schmuckli, who was in Germany when that pivotal event occurred.

The de Young Open is a project immersed in community, of the Bay Area at large and within the museum itself, involving staff throughout the organization: from curators, to tech personnel who purchased and oversaw the implementation of new software for managing thousands of anonymous submissions among six jurors, to exhibition designers and PR teams, to preparators gearing up to install thousands of works of all sizes as they roll in day after day, carried by the artists themselves—all of it somehow done with requisite social distancing—for whenever it is that the de Young reopens.

So far, under Campbell’s leadership, FAMSF has avoided the mass layoffs experienced at so many other museums, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which has also faced what the local NPR station calls an “ongoing reckoning” with racism within the institution. In November 2018, Campbell told Artnet, “I’m…very aware that, in coming to San Francisco, I’m coming to a city where diversity and inclusion are core civic values.” But it’s also a city with plenty of discrimination within its art world, as at SFMOMA, where, as of this writing, five higher-ups have resigned amid accusations of racism, including Gary Garrels, senior curator of painting and sculpture, and activists are demanding that director Neal Benezra step down as well. Last year, white San Francisco city supervisor Catherine Stefani summarily vetoed a sculpture of Maya Angelou by Black artist Lava Thomas that had been commissioned for outside the entrance of the San Francisco Public Library’s main branch.

Stefani said she wanted a statue in a traditional figurative style, “in the same way that men have been historically elevated in this city”—the very style, ironically, of the Early Days sculpture group, depicting a missionary and a cowboy looming triumphantly over a prone Native American, that stood near the library for 124 years before its predawn removal to storage in the fall of 2018. It is also the style of those statues that would be hauled off their pedestals outside the de Young in June 2020.

In early July, I met with Campbell in a de Young conference room. We sanitized our hands, wore masks (his a distinguished gray; mine a pink and purple butterfly design by Judy Chicago), and sat at either end of a long white conference table, my phone alone in the center, recording. It was like something out of science fiction, but still nice to be in the world again, speaking to another person in the flesh.

Bay Area artists, writers, and activists chime in with their picks for people who deserve a public statue.

“I can’t condone vandalism,” Campbell said of the damaged monuments outside the de Young, “but I really understand where the motivation of this action is coming from.” As it turns out, there had already been conversations within the museum “about whether we should lobby for the removal of some of these sculptures,” he explained. “The debate is long overdue, and it’s high time we stopped having people on pedestals who have blood on their hands.”

Campbell in the galleries at the de Young. The Open exhibit will include works related to the theme “On the Edge” and was planned to be part of the museum’s 125th-anniversary celebrations.
Campbell in the galleries at the de Young. The Open exhibit will include works related to the theme “On the Edge” and was planned to be part of the museum’s 125th-anniversary celebrations.

On June 20, in an unusual forum for a museum director, Campbell had shared his plan for such a reckoning. “The idea that I mentioned on my Instagram,” he told me, “and I’ve subsequently written to the mayor with a formal suggestion, is that presumably they will not replace the Francis Scott Key memorial, and I think we have a real opportunity. That is, to create a plinth where the city could each year have a competition and commission a work by a Bay Area artist that might respond to the challenge of, Who should we memorialize?”

Campbell’s sculpture proposal for the Music Concourse embraces the same civic spirit as The de Young Open: that is, of making space for local artists.

When such space will ever be safe for art and for the public again is anyone’s guess. Opening day for The de Young Open—though never officially announced—has been a moving target. When the show was first publicized in late March, the museum intended it to open mid-July. However, it wasn’t until the beginning of August that the museum announced that 763 artists and 881 works had been selected. By then, the opening had been adjusted to late August, then aimed for September, but, well, no one knows when the time will finally be right.

Editor’s note: The de Young Open will be on display and open to the public from October 10, 2020 through January 3, 2021.

There’s more than a little stress in the uncertainty, but there’s also the energy of possibility, of making it up as you go along and creating something unanticipated and, potentially, wonderful. It’s a process not unlike the plan to hang art in The de Young Open, top to bottom on the wall, a generous and exuberant choice. This “Academy style” of exhibiting art references the Royal Academy of Art in London, where, since 1769, elite members of the academy (until recently almost exclusively white men) have displayed their work once a year alongside all comers at the Summer Exhibition. Before an official opening, the artists gather on “Varnishing Day” to put final touches on their paintings. They also come to hobnob, gawk, gossip, and celebrate.

The de Young Open will offer a similar preview day for artists, from all walks of life across nine sprawling counties. I like thinking about these Bay Area artists coming together (though probably still not too close), admiring one another’s work alongside family and friends, taking selfies and group shots—once-common moments now so missed—surrounded by art: a day that will be, like Campbell’s prediction for The de Young Open itself, “fresh and chaotic.”

Bridget Quinn is a writer, critic, and art historian living in San Francisco.
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