The New Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Shares His Vision

The new director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Max Hollein.When Austrian-born Max Hollein became the new director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) this spring, the appointment met with international applause. Hollein, 47, comes to the Bay Area from Frankfurt, Germany, where he simultaneously ran three significant museums: the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection, the Schirn Kunsthalle and the Städel Museum, which doubled in size and expanded its contemporary program under his leadership. Now, settling in at the helm of the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor, Hollein is at work taking two of the city’s most beloved institutions to the next level.

What projects are you tackling first?
I think the beginning of a directorship is about defining a general attitude and understanding the particularities of the institution’s identity, which in this case is fairly complex. I’m a strong believer in the Fine Arts Museums remaining a very welcoming and popular institution, and also a real advocate of culture in the city.

Which collections do you look forward to working with?
I’m excited to work with collections I’ve had very little access to before, such as the fashion and Oceanic holdings, which are often considered on the fringes in a classical museum. The reality is this institution has one of the finest fashion collections in the world, and it’s an important part of the museum, so that’s one area where we’ll continue to grow and make a difference. You’ll also see us moving forward on other fronts, including museum strengths like 17th-century European painting, but we will be very strategic and true to the logic of the institution.

Baccus and Ariadne, from the exhibition "Brothers le Nain: Painters of 17th-Century France."Given your background  working with living artists and the recent appointment of Claudia Schmuckli as FAMSF’s new curator of contemporary art and programming, is it safe to expect an increased focus on the art of today?
The contemporary will definitely be an important part of our future—especially in terms of live art interventions and performative aspects—and the whole question of defining what contemporary means within an encyclopedic, very eclectic collection.

A YSL gown from the de Young's collection of couture.What’s your perspective on the much-discussed Bay Area art boom?
The whole world is looking at the economic and cultural momentum in this region, and we all know the challenges that come with growth, including gentrification of the art communities in which the largest institutions may be having a good moment but others still need a platform. What’s happening here is like a magnifying lens on the intense urbanization and cultural development that will happen in other cities in the not too distant future. San Francisco needs to show others how this works. We have the politics, philanthropy and thriving museums. Now it’s our responsibility to be exemplary.

What do you love about San Francisco?
It’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world—and I say this as before Viennese—but I’m particularly struck by the friendliness of society here. It’s fantastic how people immediately embrace you. I guess I'm having the same tourist moment that everyone who comes here does!

A version of this article appeared in the October 2016 issue of SFC&G (San Francisco Cottages & Gardens) with the headline: Profile: Max Hollein.

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