11 Most Influential Women in the San Francisco Art World


By Anna Volpicelli | 7X7

This is a woman's world.

Well, maybe not yet. But if the pussy-hat-wearers and #metoo whistleblowers and #timesup advocates and Hollywood starlets and badass female chefs have anything to say about it (and you know they do!), it will be soon. But did you know that the art world is already at the cutting edge?

According to a study by The National Center for Arts Research, women are already conquering the art world. Ladies have leading roles at 48 percent of American museums, and 54 percent of our small and midsize galleries are female-owned. In fact, some of the country's most prestigious art institutions are directed by women—including Lisa Phillips, of New Museum in New York; Anne Pasternak, of Brooklyn Museum, and Martha Tedeschi, of Harvard Art Museums—who pioneer innovative new programs and promote up-and-coming artists and burgeoning communities.

The Bay Area, unsurprisingly, is in step with this revolution, with fearless women of power at every major museum and dominating our gallery scene. Meet the local ladies who are changing the rules and shaping a supportive environment to bolster both local artists and our city's reputation as an international leader in art.


(Jen Woo)

Jessica Shaefer, director of Sites Unseen and cofounder of Mixed Use

The basics. "My dad Rick Shaefer is a full-time studio artist. I never planned to get involved in the art world professionally. I studied philosophy and French in college, spent a few years living and working in Europe, then returned to New York not really knowing what I wanted to do. I ended up working for a prominent art dealer and curator, then ran a small gallery on the Lower East Side, and eventually realized that I loved working with artists but hated selling art...I moved out to San Francisco and began working as project director of Sites Unseen, which programs alleyways in downtown SF with permanent public art installations and participatory activations. Two friends and I cofounded Mixed Use, a curatorial collective that presents artist-chef collaborations and nomadic exhibitions. I've been on the board of The Lab, an experimental arts space in the Mission, for the past few years."

The foundation. "I believe that art is fundamentally important in society as a means by which we exercise criticality and catharsis, I believe that artists are radical thinkers and innovators, and I believe that art provides liberating experiences and empathic connections. It's so much more than collecting objects or beautifying spaces; art is an essential and powerful tool for transformation."

The Bay Area can do better. "The Bay Area is an ecosystem composed of a network of elements and their conditions for existence: There are artists who need affordable and safe spaces to live and create their work; galleries, which also require space and a collector base; museums and other nonprofit institutions, which depend primarily on individual and corporate donations, grants, and ticket sales; art writers, who need platforms to encourage critical thinking and free dialogue; audiences, who need access and education; etc. All of these factors come together, albeit in constantly shifting ways, to define a city's art industry, or world, or scene, whatever you call it. If affordable real estate disappears in the city, then we lose our artists, then we lose our galleries and alternative spaces, the institutions become stale and irrelevant, there's no new art to write or talk about, audiences drift away and with them, essential support and community. And that is a vision of a culturally bankrupt city. We need to protect and nurture the local creative forces, and foster the idea that art isn't just about having an aesthetic experience or acquiring an object. It's also about supporting the person or people who made it, show it, share it, and give it space to hold meaning for each of us."


(Courtesy of MOAD)

Linda Harrison, executive director of the Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD)

The inspiration. "Though the majority of my career has been as an executive at Fortune 50 companies, I made a deliberate decision five years ago to use my business acumen in the service of the arts. As a longtime supporter and advocate of the arts, my path became clear. I was inspired by my grandmother, Helen Harrison, who told me that being successful meant being of service. She made a difference in her community by impacting local politics from her small beauty shop on Chicago's South Side. I've chosen to make a difference building diverse and global communities in the arts."

Works in progress. "We're just about to install three concurrent exhibitions opening March 28th. Curated by Andrew Hennlich, After the Thrill is Gone: Fashion, Politics and Culture in South African Contemporary Art presents installations, photography, painting and more directly from the continent. In addition to highlighting another striking Bay Area artist, Andrew Wilson, from Emerging Artists Program (EAP), we are also activating our first floor galleries with an exhibition focusing on digital art and augmented reality, which will be free and open to the public. In the Spring of 2019, we are ecstatic to partner with the Studio Museum of Harlem in presenting a blockbuster selection of works curated by Connie Choi. In its almost 60-year history, this will be the first traveling exhibition to reflect the full breadth of the Studio Museum of Harlem's unparalleled permanent collection."

The Bay Area can do better. "I would love to see a more vigorous public arts scene carried throughout every neighborhood."


(Courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Claudia Schmuckli, curator of contemporary art and programming at Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The impetus. "I grew up surrounded by art and, early on, developed a curiosity for the power of cultural narratives in terms of shaping thoughts and ideas. The way information circulates in our digitized culture has only increased the urgency to understand how images forge communities, societies, and our understanding of each other. Museums can play a key role in fostering such visual awareness and literacy."

Works in progress. "I am currently developing projects with Matt Mullican and Haegue Yang for the de Young and Pipilotti Rist and Alexandre Singh for the Legion of Honor. I am also getting ready to reinstall the contemporary galleries at the de Young later this spring; for this later project, I want to reevaluate what is the 'contemporary' in the specific context of how the collection was formed."

The Bay Area can do better. "Currently the biggest threat to San Francisco's historically healthy art ecology is the loss of its artists' community due to the predatory logic of real estate. There are some exemplary initiatives under way to encourage artists to stay, but there need to be more and on a larger scale. A city that cannot take care of its artists is in danger of losing its cultural vitality."


(Courtesy of Dorka Keehn)

Dorka Keehn, San Francisco Arts Commissioner and principal at Keehn on Art

The beginning. "I moved from the film industry to the art world after I discovered that I enjoyed working with my hands. I was introduced to artist Brian Goggin, who also had a strong interest in film, and we decided to collaborate on a public art project in North Beach. We created The Language of the Birds, which is the first solar-powered public artwork in the country that was also awarded Best Public Artwork by Americans for the Arts."

Works in progress. "My current big projects [include] Salesforce Tower—where artist Jim Campbell is creating an 11,000-LED-light and video installation for the top 150 feet of the building, which will be unveiled this March—and the new Golden State Warriors arena, for which we'll be announcing the public art program later this year. On the Arts Commission, we are focusing on the location for the city's first affordable housing for artists, which is a project I'm deeply committed to accomplishing."

The Bay Area can do better. "San Francisco provides more per capita funding for the arts than any other large municipality in the country. Last year the SF Arts Commission provided over $6 million in grants for the arts. We are also innovating and investing in new public/private partnerships like the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST) that helps small and mid-size arts organizations secure long-term, affordable space. As cities across the country grow in population and become more expensive places to live, we need to ensure that San Francisco continues to lead the way with new models that ensure the arts remain a key reason that people visit and reside here."


(Courtesy of OMCA)

Lori Fogarty, director and CEO of the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA)

The basics. "I've been steeped in the arts my whole life, especially music and theater in my early days and then art history in college. I landed right out of school at The Music Center in Los Angeles in fundraising and development—who knew that you could have a career raising money for the arts? I began working at SFMOMA in 1988 and have now been part of three wonderful museums, including the Bay Area Discovery Museum and the Oakland Museum of California. I've been lucky to combine my passion for the arts and culture with the opportunity to help transform institutions over my 30 years in the field."

In the works. "We are in the throes right now of preparing for the opening of Respect: Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom, opening March 24th. This is an exhibition that celebrates one of the most important cultural movements of the past 50 years through art works, historical artifacts, and the creative expression and empowerment of hip-hop, including live performances and programming within the gallery. These are my favorite moments—helping bring together the institution around an endeavor that not only will have a powerful impact on the community, but is of, with, and about that community.

"The Bay Area can do better. "We should think of cultural expression beyond the art industry, and recognize that creativity and cultural participation happens everywhere and can include everyone. It may not be that people create art, produce art, or present art for a living, but everyone can and should have a way to express themselves or to be part of cultural celebration. By recognizing that culture comes in many forms and that arts and cultural participation can have incredible benefits—from personal healing to community connection—we can recognize that the arts aren't separate and certainly aren't a luxury. The arts are core to who we are as human beings. These are values we're grounded in as we start thinking about celebrating the Oakland Museum of California's 50th anniversary in 2019."


(Gary Sexton Photography)

Lori Starr, executive director of The Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM)

The beginning. "I grew up in a mid-century modern, glass apartment building, which started my interest in architecture, design, and the visual arts. From the moment I entered a museum I knew I wanted to work in one when I grew up. My parents let me go to the Museum of Modern Art in NYC by myself. When I walked in there and saw Jackson Pollock's Number 1, 1948 drip painting, which at the time hung next to the coat check—that was it. I was in love with abstract art. I had a wonderful math teacher in high school named Ms. Lilian Cave who saw my passion for art. She let me do all my math assignments based on abstract works of art at MoMA (maybe that's why I'm not that great at math but good at art!). There was one other early formative experience—visiting The Jewish Museum as a child with my Hebrew school class, walking into a totally dark gallery with only one sculpture in it: a huge, soaring, bird-like sculpture by Jacques Lipchitz. It had a tiny spotlight on it, and it loomed large and powerful in the space. The experience was visceral, almost primitive. It took my breath away."

Works in progress. "I am excited to be focusing on the CJM's 10-year anniversary in its mighty Daniel Libeskind-designed building. I love our building, a former power station that gave light to all of San Francisco. Celebrating this milestone are a year of wonderful shows: Contraption: Rediscovering California Jewish Artists and The Art of Rube Goldberg. (Rube is a San Francisco native.) There is tremendous humor and fun in all the works of art. Also part of the line-up is Lew the Jew and the Art of the Tattoo and Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress. As someone always into fashion, I am so excited about the clothes from all over the world that we will be presenting in a dramatic, breathtaking setting. I feel that my work makes a contribution to society and am always striving to make exhibitions relevant to people of all ages and experiences."

The Bay Area can do better. "The city must direct more funding toward the arts as they are a common language and engage people in mutual respect and understanding. The arts provide constructive ways of making sense of the world. They develop the skills of dialogue, critical thinking, cooperation, and compassion—something we need more desperately than ever. The city also needs to find ways for artists, teachers, and others to afford to live and prosper in San Francisco. And, of course, the city cannot do it alone."


(Courtesy of SOMArts)

Maria Jenson, executive director of SOMArts

The basics. "When I moved to San Francisco from L.A. in 2009, I arrived with a proposal in hand for a project to assist emerging artists and galleries still reeling from the recession. I met two key contacts: art historian Peter Selz and business leader Chip Conley. These men took an outsider, a woman of color, seriously. When Chip agreed to move forward with my proposal for the ArtPadSF fair in 2010, I found the catalyst. After that I took on a role in external relations at SFMOMA during their three-year expansion. The main emphasis of my work was to connect the museum to the community. Now, as SOMArts' executive director, I have seen the power of crowd-pleasing exhibitions and events, and we embrace these projects precisely because of our mission of inclusion."

In progress. "We're launching a Performance Residency this spring and we're working with Guillermo Gomez-Pena's La Pocha Nostra to produce a performance workshop festival in the summer of 2018 focused on issues of local history, place making and land use."

The Bay Area can do better. "I believe that the Bay Area is poised to reinforce its world-leading position in the arts. There is tremendous work to do given our current social issues, and we're at a place where we can't afford to lose our artists and performers to other locations outside of the Bay Area. Given that governmental support for arts and culture continues to dwindle, it's forcing everyone to come together to do the heavy lifting. San Francisco and cities across the Bay Area need to address serious affordability concerns that are preventing artists from living here long-term. It is also going to be important that all arts and culture organizations continue to lower the bar for entry and make their events affordable and accessible to all. We need to reframe these pressures and challenges as opportunities. The Bay Area is a place for new ideas, social engagement, and concern for the future."


(Steven Brandsetter, Courtesy of Gallery Wendi Norris)

Wendi Norris, founder of Gallery Wendi Norris

Her motivation. "I have always loved to provide indelible experiences that connect people and ideas. As a gallerist, I am able to amplify my artists' visions via gallery exhibitions, museum shows, biennials, art fairs, publications and public art projects—each of which offer exciting and distinctive opportunities to learn, explore and engage."

Works in progress. "I recently announced that Gallery Wendi Norris is pioneering a new gallery model by presenting exhibitions where it makes most sense for the artist and the specific body of work, taking advantage of underutilized space throughout the globe and creating opportunities where there is institutional, market and critical support. For example, in January I opened my first offsite exhibition for Cuban artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons, in a 6,000-square-foot former military training facility in the Presidio. In February, I presented a solo exhibition for Julio César Morales in Guadalajara's Torre Cube, an audacious inverted pyramid. Much of my time in 2018 will be spent supporting my 18 represented artists and artist estates in nearly 40 museum exhibitions and biennials ranging from the Reina Sofia, Louisiana Museum and Berlin Biennial in Europe to the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico, the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and the Prospect.4 Triennial in the Americas."

The Bay Area can do better. "The city should launch a three-pronged strategy that, one, rebrands itself as an inclusive arts city (not just a place for tech, food and wine); two, builds private-public partnerships to re-invest the riches that flow through the city and foster a more culturally rich place to live (the 1 percent arts requirement is an example of just one such program); three, address meaningful affordable housing reform so that artists can actually live and work here."


(Courtesy of Deborah Rappaport)

Deborah Rappaport, cofounder of Minnesota Street Project

The starting point. "When I was a little girl, my grandmother, who lived in New York City, brought me to museums and galleries and gave me my introduction to art and how to look at it. I have been passionate about art ever since."

In process. "I am working on bringing more public programming to Minnesota Street Project, and on some ideas to bring more art to more people."

The Bay Area can do better. "I would love to see easier access to the museums and other cultural institutions in San Francisco. The city could support access to nonprofit organizations, like museums, through a variety of methods. This is a successful strategy in other cities, and it would be great to see San Francisco come up with a creative solution."


(Courtesy of Joen Madonna)

Joen Madonna, founder of ArtSpan

The basics. "When I entered the role as executive director of ArtSpan, I committed to expanding support for artists beyond our popular flagship event, San Francisco Open Studios. I wanted to do more advocacy work, ensuring the rights and needs of artists were being considered at City Hall. I also expanded our programming and created Art in Neighborhoods to offer many more exhibition opportunities to artists all over San Francisco as well as establishing 32 artist studios for ArtSpan artists to make their work."

Work in progress. "I am excited to be fundraising to open the ArtSpan Onondaga Art Center in a historic city-owned building in the Excelsior District. We will serve SF artists and residents with art studios, a community meeting space, a classroom, a resource center, and a collaborative art gallery."

The Bay Area can do better. "Artists housing and much more robust fiscal support of art support organizations, like ArtSpan, would go a long way toward helping the Bay Area creative community thrive in these challenging times. As one of the Team of Stewards for Arts for a Better Bay Area, I am helping organize the State of the Arts event and award ceremony that will take place on April 12 at the Midway Creative Complex in the Dogpatch. My opinion is that City Hall needs to be present in more of our discussion about the need for affordable housing and support of artists, one of the city's more precious resources."


(Mary Ellen Hawkins)

Ruth Berson, SFMOMA's deputy museum director, curatorial affairs.

Her inspiration. "I have always believed that art has the power to change lives, to connect all of us, to inspire creativity. And as we are currently seeing, when times are tough, museums can provide trusted places to gather and to feel a sense of community."

In process. "A year after opening in the new building, we are undertaking an inclusive strategic planning process that reaffirms our commitment to contemporary art and, just as importantly, to creating a sense of belonging for our community. One inspiring upcoming example is our partnership with the Community College of San Francisco, which will bring their spectacular and enormous mural, Pan American Unity, as the centerpiece of our 2020 Diego Rivera show. It is going to be installed in a free-of-charge gallery at SFMOMA and will provide an opportunity to engage CCSF students and all our visitors in Rivera's rich mural legacy through a work he created right here on Treasure Island."

The Bay Area can do better. "The city has long been a place that nurtured artists, and all those who value free expression and creativity, people ready to build a better world. Any great city in the 21st century needs to find ways to support a thriving ecosystem for the arts, helping not only presenting organizations, big and small, but also audiences and artists themselves. Affordability for people from all walks of life to experience the arts and studio space for artists are key. And a robust arts curriculum in schools will develop culturally literate and imaginative citizens who will contribute to the future of our special city."


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