To hear her tell it, the move couldn't come at a more exciting time. The arts are moving and shaking on campus, with three new buildings set to open in the coming years near the Cantor museum, creating what university officials are calling a new arts district.
Museum visitors can already stand on the front steps and look across Palm Drive at the construction on the 844-seat Bing Concert Hall. The hall is expected to be completed this summer, and then open in January 2013 to public performances of jazz, symphonies and other music.
Meanwhile, last week Stanford's board of trustees gave the nod to sites for two other new arts buildings. The McMurtry Building will be the new home for the university's department of art and art history, on Roth Way near the Cantor. Also nearby, on the corner of Lomita Drive and Campus Drive West, a new museum building will house the 121 works of art being donated to the school by the Menlo Park-based Anderson Collection.
"It's a whole new moment for art on campus," Wolf says. She'll certainly have arts-friendly neighbors. For example, she notes, art students will now be based much closer to the Cantor in the new McMurtry structure, not on the other side of the Oval as the Cummings Art Building is now.
Wolf is easygoing and amiable as she chats with a Weekly reporter, sitting in a big leather chair outside a Cantor exhibition of paintings by the late California artist Rex Slinkard. She says she's thrilled to return to Stanford, where she graduated in 1981 with a bachelor's degree in East Asian Studies.
"I can only do things that I feel really passionate about," she says. "When the possibility opened up (to come to the Cantor), I realized I already had that passion for Stanford."
Wolf will commute from San Francisco, where she has been serving as director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum. She replaces Thomas K. Seligman, who is retiring after 20 years leading the Cantor.
Before working at the Jewish Museum, Wolf was associate director for public programs and curator of education at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. But much of her inspiration is rooted at Stanford.
In her undergraduate days, she learned an appreciation for art as a way to build community — and as something that benefits deeply from being seen in a societal and historical context. When she studied a type of Chinese art, for example, she also studied the politics and literature of the time and place.
"People connect to art and artwork in many different ways," she said. "For me, it's about the ideas that surround a work of art. I like art that asks big questions."
The Cantor also has a history of programs that connect the visual arts with other types of creativity. For instance, in 2009-10, Stanford experimental-music composer Mark Applebaum displayed an unusual score filled with drawings and designs, and the museum brought in different musicians each week — a rapper, string players, a woman with a flute and piccolo — to stand on the Cantor balcony and play their interpretations of the score.
Wolf thought that was a great idea. She muses about the Cantor's permanent collection, which encompasses some 30,000 pieces of art, and wonders aloud about other programs in which writers, poets, musicians could come in and be inspired by the works. "How do you create ways for new interaction and dialogue?" she asks. "How can we build on that and make it happen more often?"
If Wolf's thought processes lead her in new directions for the museum, this may not be surprising. She herself has followed an unusual path. Museum directors, especially those at university institutions, often have a more traditional background studying art history. In fact, when Wolf was announced as the next Cantor director last year, art-department chair Nancy Troy called the move "unexpected and daring."
Wolf laughs when Troy's words are quoted back to her. "I come from the field of education, thinking and teaching about art," she says. "I come from the path of being a viewer. I am not a doctoral expert, so maybe I'm an unusual selection. But I believe that running a museum involves working with many kinds of people."
Wolf's varied experiences were attractive to the Jewish Museum board when it hired her as director in 1999. In fact, the board chose her right away after one interview and a recommendation from San Francisco Museum of Modern Art director David Ross, board trustee Stephen Leavitt recalls in a phone interview. "No committees, no nothing. We were that impressed.
"Her resume is very interesting and speaks to her level of adaptability and variety of intelligences that she possesses," Leavitt says. Ultimately, he adds, the board was most pleased by Wolf's "level of energy, her enthusiasm ... the quickness of her understanding of the project at our museum."
That tiny little project was shepherding the Jewish Museum's major growth, from 2,500 square feet of office space into a dramatic 63,000-square-foot museum designed by architect Daniel Libeskind. The museum moved to that space near Yerba Buena Gardens in 2008.
While the Jewish Museum is a non-collecting institution, Wolf brought in many innovative exhibits, Leavitt says. In an exhibit on the Torah, a young scribe came in to create a Torah in front of the public. Visitors could ask her questions about the parchment, the ink, the writing.
"That's an example of taking an idea that might have been called an old idea and making it into something alive and contemporaneous," Leavitt says.
At the Cantor, when asked whether she has specific plans for new exhibitions or projects, Wolf answers: "I have a very steep learning curve ahead of me. There are so many initiatives already. I want to understand future opportunities to build on those."
One thing she's especially looking forward to is the Feb. 1 opening of an exhibition of about 100 photos by the famed American photographer Walker Evans. This will be the first new show under Wolf's directorship. Like other exhibitions, it will have companion educational programs, including lectures, a book discussion and guided tours.
"I'm very curious to go to all the programs and see who the audiences are," Wolf said.