Cantor Arts Center's latest leader

Director Susan Dackerman settles in, plans for the future

Susan Dackerman's office windows overlook the Cantor Art Center's Rodin Sculpture Garden where, she said, "There are people looking at the art at all times of day." She also has the vantage point of being in the center of Stanford University's arts district, which includes the neighboring Anderson Collection and, directly across Museum Way, Bing Concert Hall. Since starting her position as the John and Jill Freidenrich Director of the Cantor Arts Center last September, she has been familiarizing herself with the rich history of the arts at Stanford, as well as assessing the current museum staff and programming.

Unlike her predecessors, Tom Seligman and Connie Wolf, Dackerman is not an alumna of the university, nor has she had any previous academic connection to Stanford.

"It has been a pleasure getting to know the museum collection, what people want to see and what are the visitors' favorites what they come back to see," she said. She finds the Stanford community, and the Bay Area in general, to be very friendly, she said. And she is certainly happy with our mild climate after years of living on the East Coast.

Dackerman attended Vassar College, where she earned a bachelor's degree in art history, then got her doctorate at Bryn Mawr College. Her first museum job was as assistant curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art. From there, she worked as curator of prints at the Harvard Art Museums for 10 years. While at Harvard, she was involved in the planning for the renovation of the museum and galleries. She also organized major exhibitions and produced scholarly catalogs. Prior to coming to Stanford, she was a Getty scholar and consortium professor at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. When asked why she would leave the scholarly enclaves, usually protected from palace politics, for the demanding role of museum director she replied, "During my time as a scholar and curator, people created conditions for me to do good work. I felt like it was my turn to start creating those conditions for others."

She has the rare opportunity to form her own curatorial team, thanks to staff attrition and new positions being funded.

"We will be filling five positions in the curatorial department," she said. Curators in American, European, Asian and African art will be hired, as well as a curator for photography and new media. She spoke excitedly of the "excellent" pool of candidates for the Asian art position, most of whom have expertise in both traditional and contemporary Asian art. She also said that she is working with staff to develop a program of Asian-American art, given the importance of Asian culture in the Bay Area.

Dackerman is well aware of the many and varied constituents that the museum serves: faculty, students and the general public. She credited previous director Connie Wolf with encouraging more interdisciplinary programming, collaborations with other university departments, and for bringing students into the museum.

"Nearly a quarter of a million visitors come to the museum each year, and they come regularly. We have to have programming that has a wide appeal," she said. But how to appeal to students, who are perhaps more prone to look at art online, as well as to older members, who may prefer traditional art, and the casual visitor?

"Basically, I think that a good exhibition is a good exhibition," she said. "It appeals to everyone and it exists on a variety of levels, and people who come to it get what they need from it. People want to have an engaging and interesting encounter with art."

She also feels that there does not have to be a divide between the university community and the public.

"There are ways of engaging the academic community for public programs," she said. "We are talking about starting a program of short conversations in the galleries around objects. This would be a real conversation with scholars, perhaps in other fields." She gave an example of a large-scale Damien Hirst sculpture, The Void, now on loan to the Cantor. It consists of 5,000 hand-crafted pills displayed on metal rows and encased in a frame. "This piece presents an opportunity to have conversations between the public and, say, someone from the medical school talking about addiction, or someone from the law school talking about big pharma."

While planning programs and developing audiences are the more visible part of her job, Dackerman must also attend to the day-to-day running of the museum. One of the first things she did was to meet individually with each staff member to find out from them what was working and what wasn't. She said that monthly staff meetings are held and usually have a theme.

"Last month we looked at the mission statement and what we could improve upon. A new one will be written in the coming months."

In regards to Stanford's reputation as a high-tech, science and entrepreneurial hub, Dackerman said she did not feel that the arts were underrepresented.

"The arts need to seem relevant. People here are so busy, their time is taken up. We need to offer exhibitions that address relevant and contemporary concerns, that address the world we live in, such as environment, politics and identity issues," she said. "Art is an amazing springboard for representation of those ideas, as well as discussions about those ideas."

She is excited about several upcoming major exhibitions: "Inkworld," contemporary Chinese ink painting from the collection of Stanford alumni Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki (opening in May) and "Contact Warhol," a gift of the artist's contact prints planned for the fall. On April 27, the museum will be open 24 hours for a screening of "111 Vigilia, Canto, Leiture," a performance work by Nuno Ramos.

"In a museum of this size," Dackerman said, "there is always something for someone to like."

Despite her busy life on campus, Dackerman commutes back to her home in Los Angeles on weekends. "I like having both worlds, the Bay Area and L.A., available," she said. This has not kept her from exploring Palo Alto, where she frequents Thyme restaurant "small, good food and great wine list." She also enjoys driving along the coast.

Dackerman seems pleased and happy with her new gig. She described attending a recent performance at Bing and walking outside afterwards, looking straight ahead at the Cantor Arts Center. "Wow," she thought to herself, "That looks great there!"

Freelance writer Sheryl Nonnenberg can be emailed at nonnenberg@aol.com.

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