The venerable museum had been closed since suffering damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Not only would the new director have to spearhead the rebuilding (and fundraising), he would have to ensure that the museum's 25,000 works of art were kept safe in the process. This was a different world from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where Seligman had worked for two decades.
"It was a leap of faith, I have to say," Seligman said in a recent interview. "I had no idea if we would end up being able to rebuild the museum. At that time they weren't even really talking about expanding. They were just talking about trying to get it back up on its feet."
But Seligman had longtime connections to the campus — he'd earned a bachelor's degree from Stanford in 1965 — and he saw an opportunity. "It had a terrific old building," he said of the museum. "The bones of it were great. And it had a small but very loyal constituency."
The museum reopened in 1999 as the expanded Cantor Arts Center, and today hosts 12 to 16 exhibitions a year, along with lectures, tours and other educational endeavors. Seligman has been at the helm all along, but this year will be his last as director; he's announced his plans to retire at the end of 2011.
Seligman, a San Francisco resident, plans to continue doing research and teaching at Stanford, where he's taught courses on art and identity, cultural property issues and museum governance.
He has also taught on African art, a major focus of his. Seligman, who describes himself as more of an anthropologist than an art historian, has spent a great deal of time living, working and traveling in Africa. He was in the Peace Corps in Liberia from 1968 to 1970, during which time he also worked as a curator and assistant university professor of art.
In addition, he's made many research trips to the continent. His 2007 exhibition "Art of the Tuareg: Saharan Nomads in a Modern World" was the culmination of 20 years of research. The traveling exhibition headed to the Smithsonian Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., after its time at the Cantor.
Under Seligman's leadership, the Cantor has also expanded its collection through many major acquisitions. Some pieces are purchased, but about 90 percent are gifts, Seligman said. They've included an Alexander Calder mobile, prints by Albrecht Durer, and a Janet Fish still life that at least one curator had been eyeing for years. That still life, "Goldfish and Autumn Leaves," is now on exhibit in the museum's recently renovated contemporary gallery.
Seligman's philosophy on acquisitions is to work closely with Cantor curators to create a common framework of questions for judging works of art: What does our collection currently hold in this area? Is this piece right for us? How will our Stanford colleagues be able to use the piece in teaching?
It's all a careful strategy. As an example, Seligman cited the sculptor Mark di Suvero. "We have two large Mark di Suveros already. If someone offered us a maquette of his, for example, we might say yes — we're trying to show a breadth of works. But maybe not another large work of his."
He added: "Museums used to be measured by quantity. I don't care about quantity. I care about quality and unity. ... You're trying to build a collection that's purposeful."
Overall, Stanford president John L. Hennessy said in a press release, the Cantor center has grown into "a source of tremendous pride" on campus under Seligman's leadership.
"During the 19 years of his tenure, the museum has been rebuilt, its holdings have been strengthened, and its education program expanded," Hennessy said. "In many ways, his successes at the museum have set the stage for establishing a transformative Arts Initiative at Stanford, and he has our thanks."
A university committee will soon oversee an international search for Seligman's replacement.
When asked what advice he would give to young people aspiring to become museum directors or curators, Seligman said that the role of director has become more complicated over time. Besides being schooled in art, museum directors must handle legal, management and sometimes architectural issues.
"I think I run a business that is called an art museum, and I have to run it in a business-like way," Seligman said. "It's never dull, but it is taxing."
He added: "You must be passionate about and interested in and trained in art, and the history thereof. And you've got to go through complicated organizational experience. If you like all these things, then you'll probably end up being a good museum director. If you hate most of the business and legal ... then you should be a curator."
Seligman counts himself fortunate that he has gotten to play both roles, thanks to working in a supportive university environment. "I never gave up my research work and territorial work in Africa," he said. "I didn't have to."