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Rodin, Muslim style and hippie chic

In only a few months, Max Hollein has rebooted the exhibition programme of San Francisco’s de Young Museum and Legion of Honor

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Six months into the job of running the de Young and Legion of Honor (known as the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, or FAMSF), Max Hollein is already revamping planned shows and introducing new ones. On Thursday, Hollein announced that the museum acquired 62 works by contemporary African American artists from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta, and will display the full collection in the special exhibition Revelations: Art from the African American South (3 June-1 April 2018). As the former head of the Städel and the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt (and former chair of the Bizot Group of leading museum directors), he also has an eye on building up the museum’s international profile. We spoke with him in his office last month about the changes under way.

The Art Newspaper: The de Young is famous for importing blockbuster shows. Will that continue?

Max Hollein: The model the museums have relied on in the past was either bringing in collections from other institutions or being the West Coast venue for touring shows. Nothing’s wrong with that in general, but neither builds up the institution’s reputation, and it probably doesn’t make full use of its curatorial capacity. When I came here, I encouraged the curatorial staff to share ideas: what are the shows we want to do based on our collections? That brings challenges: it’s more work, and there’s a financial difference. But that’s an area where we can perform in a major way, delivering not only for a local audience but also for an international constituency. For instance, the Legion of Honor is embarking on a series of Old Master shows that we are going to tour. We’re also doing a Rodin show from our collection, and invited Urs Fischer and Sarah Lucas to respond to the sculptures with site-specific work.

You announced a show for 2018 called The Fashion of Islam, looking at Muslim styles today from aesthetic, cultural and religious viewpoints. I understand reaction has been intense.

The reaction has been that ten other museums immediately approached us and said they wanted to have the show. We also heard from a lot of people who said, this sounds interesting because fashion shows should not just be about style. Janis Joplin was not wearing her leather jacket just to look good, but to make a statement, and in this case it’s even more complex. Then there was also a reaction from some people in the US who felt that a US museum should not deal with Islam. These people have a certain political viewpoint, maybe an idea that Islam is Isis.

Did that surprise you?

Yes. As a museum that comes out of the idea of the World’s Fair, a museum about the culture of the world and for the world, being asked not to cover the Muslim world—nearly 25% of the population—because we should stick with our Western values, that seems like a strange view of what a museum can do.

Across town, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) has a board of serious collectors who funded a major expansion. Former FAMSF trustees told me your board is full of friends of the chair, Dede Wilsey, who don’t know so much about art—“her cronies”. Is there any truth in that?

It’s true that our board doesn’t know as much about contemporary art as SFMoMA. But it would be completely unfair to say there are no collectors on our board. They are invested in different areas. We have great collectors of African sculpture, French Impressionism, textiles and costumes, artistic works in glass—and that almost prevents them from being such a close-knit group. The perception that the board members are all close friends of Dede Wilsey is certainly not true—I don’t know if that’s a plus or a minus, but it’s not the fact.

When you were in Frankfurt you were known for digital initiatives. Anything under way now?

Our interest is not in pumping up the museum experience with a lot of technology—you will not find a lot of screens here. We are deeply invested in projects that help to broaden our educational outreach. Starting in February with our early Monet exhibition, we’ll publish a digital education guide, for free, for every major show. People come to a baseball game way more prepared than for an exhibition—they know about the batting statistics and they’ve read the latest interview with the coach. So, to give people a richer and more informed experience, we will put forward a 30-minute multimedia guide that gives them the chance, days before they visit, to understand the art and its broader context.

Any thoughts on how to reach the tech community here?

Everyone asks, what are these people in Silicon Valley doing in terms of funding cultural institutions? But it’s not only the tech entrepreneurs who got relatively wealthy. The tide has been rising for everyone: the real estate business has profited, the private equity business profited, the law firms profited. So we already see people supporting us who are very well connected to and benefit from Silicon Valley. I would not be so obsessed with whether this 32-year-old entrepreneur who just sold his company is already giving. I also like the 64-year-old private equity partner who invested in two unicorns.

Many artists in San Francisco are struggling because of the crazy real estate prices—or leaving town. What should museums be doing about it?

This is certainly a real issue, and obviously big metropolises like New York and London are also grappling with the problem. I don’t think museums can change the economic equation behind that, but it means we have a duty to be even more of a platform for local artistic expression and output. The reality is that museums benefit from this situation, this gentrification; museums gain in wealth during these times.

Have you and your wife, the designer Nina Hollein, had any challenges adapting to life in the US?

I’ll tell you the biggest problem: you can buy the most expensive iPhones here, but if you don’t have a credit history in the US, you can’t get a service contract. So we had to go prepaid, which doesn’t allow you to call to Europe. We could only do calls via Wi-Fi.

• Monet: the Early Years, Legion of Honor, FAMSF, 25 February-29 May