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July 21, 2011

Connie Wolf to head Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford

The dynamic director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco will bring her acclaimed innovation and style to the Cantor Arts Center beginning on Jan. 1, 2012.

By Cynthia Haven

Connie Wolf will become the director of the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts on Jan. 1, 2012. (Photo by Kira Shemano)

Connie Wolf, director and CEO of San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum, was a galvanizing force in bringing a national profile to a little-known institution. Now she'll have a chance to bring the same record of drive and innovation to the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford when she becomes the new director on Jan. 1, 2012.

She follows Thomas K. Seligman, who became the center's first full-time director in 1991.  Seligman, who will continue research and teaching at Stanford, called Wolf "a terrific choice" and said he "is very pleased she will be taking Cantor to its next chapter."

Wolf's record is formidable: Under her leadership, the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) grew from a small community-based organization in a 2,500-square- foot building to a major institution with a landmark 63,000-square foot-museum in downtown San Francisco.

Wolf raised $85 million for building expenses, start-up costs and a $25 million endowment. With architect Daniel Libeskind, one of the world's top contemporary architects, she developed plans for the new facility, which opened in 2008.

"In the interviews, Connie indicated that she would bring a high level of creativity and energy to the position of director," said Richard Saller, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences.

Saller cited Wolf's "impressive track record" in recreating CJM, which included a special emphasis on education.  He added that her interest in "using technology to extend the modes of education" was a good match for Stanford.

In discussing her appointment, Wolf hailed Stanford's reputation for boldness and entrepreneurship, saying that "Cantor has to have those same characteristics."

"We have an opportunity to take Cantor's strong collections and its legacy and think about it in a new era," she said.

Wolf emphasized her love of education and the necessity of meeting today's students on their own turf, "making sure that the museum has a kind of relevance to how a younger generation connects to ideas."

While stressing the need to use new media, she added a note of balance in the age of rapid-fire communications: "At the same time, nothing can replace the experience of looking at a piece of art."

Wolf's appointment follows two recent announcements in the visual arts. In June, Stanford announced the acquisition of the Anderson Collection, one of the most outstanding private collections of 20th-century American art in the world. In April, the university announced the selection of the Diller Scofidio + Renfro architecture firm to design the McMurtry arts building. The 90,000-square-foot building will serve as a new home for the art and art history department.

The moves are the most recent developments in the creation of a new arts district at the "front door" of the campus, just off Palm Drive.  The state-of-the-art Bing Concert Hall, which will be completed next year, will provide another anchor for the district.

According to Nancy Troy, chair of the art and art history department, Connie Wolf fits Stanford's reputation for innovation: "Hiring someone whose background is not squarely in the history of art is a move that is unexpected and daring for Stanford ­– and yet this is the moment for this, to think differently and be open to new directions, building upon the firm foundation that Tom Seligman and his staff have built over the last 20 years."

Wolf, a Stanford alumna, arrived at CJM in 1999, when it had a staff of six. Under her guidance, it grew to include more than 60 paid staff, with a 41-member board of trustees and a docent and volunteer program of 75.

Her fundraising efforts drew mostly from donors across the Bay Area. The result of the effort – architect Libeskind's dramatic design for CJM features a steel cube balanced at a gravity-defying angle – makes it one of the more distinctive buildings in the Bay Area.

Wolf also spearheaded hundreds of innovative exhibitions, education initiatives and public programs at the museum. She commissioned works from such artists and musicians as Matthew Ritchie, Laurie Anderson, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Alan Berliner, Irit Batsry, Lou Reed, Erik Friedlander and Mierle Ukeles.

Before she came to the Bay Area, Wolf was the associate director for public programs and curator of education at New York City's Whitney Museum for American Art.

At the Rockefeller Foundation from 1989 to 1991, she was a research associate in school reform and a Warren Weaver Fellow in the foundation's arts and humanities division.

Wolf has been no stranger to Stanford since she left with a B.A. in East Asian studies in 1981. With Stanford's Wanda Corn, emeritus professor of art, she presented CJM's current exhibition, "Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories." In October, she will host a Stanford graduate student symposium at CJM.

At Stanford, she will be the John and Jill Freidenrich Director of the arts center.

"We're really betting on innovation, and that's a great thing for Stanford. She's not an unknown, but it's different than choosing someone with a traditional profile and where that would have led us," said Troy.  "She's the horse we're betting on."

When asked what she found most difficult about transforming CJM, Wolf responded with a single word: "Patience."  Will it be the same at Cantor?

"Absolutely. Change is never easy, but it can be really exhilarating."



Matthew Tiews, Stanford executive director of arts programs,, (650) 725-0186

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service:, (650) 724-6184

For Connie Wolf, contact Daryl Carr,, (415) 655-7834

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