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He's Got Big Assignment by the Bay

March 29, 1998|Suzanne Muchnic

'Is it difficult to leave New York?" David A. Ross quipped to an interviewer when asked about ending his seven-year tenure as director of the Whitney Museum of American Art on July 1 to take charge of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, "I can't believe you are asking that, as an Angeleno. I thought L.A. had become the new center. Now it's my job to make San Francisco the new center.

"New York will always be the nation's greatest and biggest city, the center of commerce where a great amount of great art is made. But the American art world has become a very different place than it was 17 years ago when I left the Bay Area. What has happened in California, both north and south, is nothing short of remarkable. It's a complete transformation."

His decision to return to the West Coast was the result of "soul-searching about what I really want, where I can do the most good right now and have the most impact," he said.

Ross, 48, was deputy director of the Long Beach Museum of Art from 1974 to 1977, where he became a pioneering specialist in video art. He served as assistant director for collections and programs and chief curator at UC Berkeley's University Art Museum from 1977 to 1981, then moved east to direct Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art from 1982 to 1991.

At the Whitney, Ross oversaw the museum's always controversial Biennial exhibitions, which take the pulse of contemporary art nationwide and often become political lightning rods. But under his leadership, the museum also has organized retrospectives for major California-based artists, including Richard Diebenkorn, Alexis Smith and Mike Kelley. Ross served as co-curator with opera impresario Peter Sellars of "Bill Viola: A 25 Year Survey," which appeared at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last fall and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

"It's a truly engaged, active and complicated world here," Ross said of California. "San Francisco is a very diverse city with a lot of pockets of unknown territory for me. There are artists I have been deeply involved with for a long time, but I've got a lot to learn. So I'm looking forward to coming here on a lot of levels."

Unlike the Whitney--the premier museum of American 20th century art--SFMOMA is not restricted by country. "The mission of the Whitney is so vital because American art is not a settled thing, but my own interests concern what's happening all around the world," he said. "From this perch here, I'll be much more easily able to engage in a fully international activity."

As for his agenda, Ross said: "I guess it's to try to take San Francisco to the next level. I've joined an institution that's already moving very quickly. The museum is already on a very fast, upward trajectory. I have to hit the ground running and participate in moving the institution to the next level. What that means in specifics, I can't fully tell you until I understand what's already in place and how what I want to do might fit."

The Whitney often engenders critical scorn, artists' complaints and supporters' squabbles, so Ross might appear to be leaving a hot seat for a considerably cooler situation. But he says that's not the case. "SFMOMA is also a very high-profile institution that deals with living artists," he said. "That's fun. That's what makes my blood run, to be able to work with artists. That's how I learn. Doing that here will be no different from doing it in New York or Boston or Berkeley or Long Beach."

He also claims to welcome working with trustees who did not all agree with their search committee's choice of successor to former Director John R. Lane, who left last September. "They had a unanimous decision when they were all done arguing," Ross said. "I wouldn't want to be in a place that was a rubber-stamp institution where there aren't differing opinions strongly held. This board is an extraordinary group, very passionate, intelligent, engaged and successful. What would I expect them to be, a group of docile sheep, led around by the nose? No, they know what they want and have worked very hard for the last 15 years to move this institution to the place it is right now. I wouldn't want anything else."

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