On June 1, Max Hollein became the new director of the Fine Arts Museums. Born in Vienna, Max comes to us most recently from Frankfurt, where he directed the Schirn Kunsthalle (since 2001), as well as the Städel Museum and the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection (both since 2006). Max studied art history at the University of Vienna and business administration at the Vienna University of Economics and began his career at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. We asked members to send their own questions to ask our new director.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for an arts institution such as the Fine Arts Museums in this day and age?
The de Young and the Legion of Honor offer extraordinary visitor experiences with outstanding exhibitions, world-class collections, and provocative art-historical and cultural narratives. Both are great museums represented by buildings and works of art that are distinctive and beloved. But these days, museums are not just places to visit. They also represent frameworks for education and engagement that go beyond the physical perimeters of the buildings. We are already one of the main advocates for art and culture in Northern California. We will foster this mission by offering multiple ways to access art and by creating meaningful experiences that will transcend the museum walls and be felt deeply throughout our local community and beyond.
How is the museum as a cultural institution changing, and how will such transformations inform your plans for the Fine Arts Museums?
Museums play a very different role today than they did when the de Young and Legion of Honor were founded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is wonderful that audiences have become more diverse, meaning that they come to us with a variety of different expectations and levels of knowledge. We aim to welcome and serve all of them by creating multiple ways to access our collections, exhibitions, and programs and by reaching them with interpretive materials that speak to a range of education levels and social and personal perspectives.
How do you plan to activate art within the social and political landscape of the Bay Area?
The Fine Arts Museums will become a significant platform for the appreciation of art and cultural history not only at the museums but also at home, at school, and on your smartphone on the way to work. We will make the expertise of our curators and the content they develop available in a variety of ways—through our exhibitions and related public programs, of course, but also through new educational offerings that use digital technologies. Museums can no longer reach their very diverse constituencies by speaking with a single voice. Today our audiences are so multifaceted that we must find a range of means to communicate with them.
What excites you about technology and museums?
It is interesting that while we live in the age of “limited attention spans,” when time spent with newspapers and other sources of information and entertainment has dropped, the average duration of a museum visit has not changed over the years. People are choosing to spend a lengthy amount of time at museums even when they can come and go as they please (unlike a visit to the opera or the theater, where the length of their visit is set in advance). In contrast with our daily lives, the museum offers a special opportunity to experience visual culture and process information; there, ideally, you slow down, focus, and immerse yourself deeply in a stimulating thought, an aesthetic achievement, or an emotional rush. Thus, on the one hand, I want to keep a fairly pristine museum experience that is not cluttered with technical gizmos—which are already outdated at the moment we install them—that replicate the visual noise and cacophony of “the street.” On the other hand, we must make aggressive use of technology in all areas of communication, education, and information dispersal outside of the museum, connecting with our audiences in ways that greatly exceed the duration of a visit.
California, especially the Bay Area, is a melting pot of diverse people and communities. How will you reflect this aspect through the art on view?
It seems to me that the de Young is the museum that by its sheer definition— meaning its history and its collection—is not only well poised to reflect the diversity of the Bay Area but actually has a mission to do so. Our programming should, and will, reflect the reality that for any given object, theme, subject, or moment in history there are multiple readings and different narratives depending on one’s viewpoint or cultural perspective. One of our institutional goals is to be a strong voice within the most relevant cultural discussions of our time, especially in a city that is undergoing such transformation as San Francisco is today.
What is your favorite work of art at the de Young or the Legion of Honor?
Currently I am still making discoveries and finding surprises within the vast collections of the Fine Arts Museums, so I would be hard pressed to select just one favorite piece. There are, of course, many extraordinary works in both institutions, and some rather rare objects. I did not expect to find, for example, the Medardo Rosso sculpture [Aetas Aurea: L’Age d’Or (The Golden Age), 1884–1885)]. But for me right now, my favorite “artwork” is in fact the concept of the Legion of Honor itself. Its setting is breathtaking, its history is special, and its architecture is grand but also peculiar in its being a three-quarter-scale copy of a famous French building. The whole idea of the Legion’s as a site that comes to life—with a fantastic theater and an organ built inside that uses the entire museum as a resonating body—represents an ideal of what an cultural institution can be, resulting from the ambitions of individuals who want to do something special for the arts and for society.
One of our institutional goals is to be a strong voice within the most relevant cultural discussions of our time, especially in a city that is undergoing such transformation as San Francisco is today.
What is your vision for displaying the permanent collections?
The curators and I are in ongoing discussions about how best to improve the presentation of the collections, to make the visitor experience more powerful and fluid, and also to stress the art-historical context for the works in each gallery. Even more important, our exhibition program will be more deeply rooted in our holdings and will reflect the unique identities of our two museums. For me, exhibition programming serves to promote understanding of the art that we have under our enduring care.
What are you looking forward to most as a new San Francisco resident?
I am looking forward to living a great life in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I know that for many years to come my family and I will continue to be blown away by the great vistas, by the different neighborhoods, by the numerous opportunities for enjoying the outdoors, and by many of its other virtues. As a Viennese coming from another beautiful environment, I can say that San Francisco is a marvelous city, full of energy and excitement.
What other languages do you speak besides English?
Well of course I speak German, my native language. I also speak French, although I need to brush up on that, and some Italian.
What do you do for fun?
One of the big advantages of my “job” is that despite all of its challenges and the hard work it entails, it also brings with it a lot of what other people would consider leisure activity and sheer fun. For me, meeting people, visiting artists, looking at exhibitions, attending opening parties, organizing performances, etc., is great fun—and that is also how it should be. But, yes, there is also a life beyond the museum (although it is difficult to draw the line). I love to go skiing with my family, go hiking in the mountains, drink red wine at sunset, and listen to loud music.
What talent would you most like to have?
What is the last thing you Googled?