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Art of Engagement

New director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Thomas Campbell brings his vision—and an unexpected knack for Latin—to the Bay Area.


You essentially swapped jobs with your predecessor. How does your vision for the Museums differ? Max Hollein accomplished a lot in his brief time here. He really reinvigorated the exhibition program [and] increased the Museums’ [commitment to] modern and contemporary art, which is something that I had also done myself at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I’m interested in looking at how those initiatives have worked and furthering them... [but] first and foremost, I want to make sure the Museums are engaging with the audiences and the art that are distinctive to this area and to California.

What were some takeaways from your Getty Rothschild Fellowship, and how are you implementing them? One of the things that I was looking at was the way that, in the last 20 years, museums have made considerable efforts to make themselves more accessible. ... From April 6, on Saturdays, general admission will be free to residents of San Francisco. Entry fees can often be a barrier, especially to lower-income households. This is a new innovation to reach out to—and to give us an opportunity to engage in new ways with—local audiences.

What else is in the works? I’m still taking stock, but... one of the early initiatives we’ve taken is to work with Mayor Breed’s office to offer an expanded number of paid internships this summer. Our goal is to create a larger pipeline of young kids— encouraging a wider, more diverse group to consider the art world as a career.

Do you collect art too? Our house is full of art, but it’s mostly by friends. I have a soft spot for rather unfashionable British figurative painters of the post-Second World War era. If I ever win the jackpot, that’s where I would collect seriously.

What are some of your nonmuseum-related interests? I love the ballet, and... I look forward to the opera season. I love hiking. Lately, I’ve been teaching myself to read Latin. That’s my current hobby. I stole my daughter’s Latin school textbooks.

Did you ever consider another career? When I was young, I painted a lot, but I knew I wasn’t good enough to be an artist in my own right. ... And I had a brief moment of thinking I might be a theater director at school and at university, but the art world sucked me in. I’ve never had any regrets.


Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco 

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