Destination Guides

The Bigger Picture

Five minutes with Sandra Phillips: the senior curator of photography at the SFMOMA talks about the museum's expansion project and the new photography centre opening May 14

The Bigger Picture

The Bay City’s iconic Museum of Modern Art reopens this month in the wake of an extensive renovation and expansion project, which took nearly three years to complete. The Mario Botta design, unveiled some twenty years ago, is set to benefit from a 10-storey expansion by Norwegian architects Snøhetta, offering up to three times more exhibition space as well as a new dedicated centre for photography. Sandra Philips, senior curator of photography and long-time veteran of the city’s art scene, takes us inside the new and improved MOMA.

Departures: How will your department benefit from renovation?

Sandra Phillips: We have two galleries for showing photography, one will be a permanent collection in the Botta-designed portion of the building, and all the galleries there will be used for the permanent collection. We have another space for temporary shows that is just as big. We also have the Photography Interpretive Gallery where you can see what is in the collection and work with interactive features to understand what the collection is about and how photographs work. Then we have almost the entire collection on the same floor, along with a study centre. The increased space also has meant that we have to have a larger staff, so I am grateful to have new, smart colleagues helping us.

What was your role in the soon-to-be-unveiled makeover? 

I have led the department through all these changes, and I think the most important factor was that we made shows that no one else was doing, for whatever reasons. We were permitted to be innovative and creative. 

How would you describe the institution’s relationship to the art of photography?

SFMOMA has exhibited and collected photography since the beginning of the institution, because the great photographers — Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, Minor White, among others — who lived in the area were its great artists. Until recently, the museum was a small one, and thus the presence of photography was more evident. For instance, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago have always been larger, thus the proportion of attention that they have paid to photography is larger.


What has been your proudest moment during your tenure?

Oh, my – there have been so many! I suppose leaving the old building on Van Ness and opening a real photography gallery in the Botta-designed building was probably the moment that really changed things.

You’re slated to retire in the coming months – what will your role as curator emeritus entail? 

When I retire I will continue to do projects for the museum, I just won’t be the administrator of the department. That suits me just fine!