Transformative Ideas: Moving Art, Community, and Philanthropy

After three years of anticipation, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art re-opened its doors this past weekend with celebrations that engaged the entire community. High school musicians, local artists, neighboring museums and cultural institutions, politicians, and supporters of all kinds – everyone, it seems, had a piece of the action.

The reconception of SFMOMA – a GG+A client with which I am privileged to work – illustrates the power of transformative ideas to capture the imagination, inspire extraordinary philanthropy, and enable an institution to extend the reach and power of its mission more fully to the communities it serves. Neal Benezra, the museum’s Helen and Charles Schwab Director, has said that San Francisco loves a big idea and is willing to take chances and risk failure in pursuit of it. To be sure, the City by the Bay has always swung at big ideas.

The museum itself – the West Coast’s first devoted to modern and contemporary art – was founded during the dark days of the Great Depression. The city, at the same time undertaking construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, could see beyond the enormous challenges of the moment and invest in community pillars that would move people and ideas forward in the decades and centuries to come.

For today’s SFMOMA, the vision is equally bold: a museum whose walls are porous in their embrace of both new technologies and the surrounding community, a place where ideas push known boundaries, a collection that is expanded in unparalleled ways, and opportunities and inspiration for a much wider group of donors to get involved with gifts of all sizes.

Through the Campaign for Art, the museum’s leadership and board pioneered a new method of targeted expansion of the collection. Thousands of remarkable new pieces, including the renowned Doris and Donald Fisher Collection and many other pieces donated by Bay Area collectors, fill the expanded museum’s impressive galleries with unmatched works of photography and artwork of all kinds by California artists.

The museum has extended its public outreach mission in important ways, expanding access to many of its collections and activities through more open admissions policies and a new digital strategy. Ground-floor galleries are open without charge to the public, and free admission is granted to all visitors 18 years and younger. The Bloomberg Philanthropies funded the development of a new mobile application that helps visitors engage more deeply with the art through audio storytelling using location-aware technology; the new app also ensures that the museum is fully a part of its community through digital storytelling about the neighborhood and the city.

Transformative ideas – worthy of both SFMOMA’s noble civic purposes and exceptionally generous philanthropy – have redefined SFMOMA for the coming century. Those ideas, now so handsomely brought to life, enable the museum to fulfill its role in reflecting and stimulating the creative forces of the art and artists of our time.

This piece was originally published by Suzanne Hilser-Wiles on LinkedIn Pulse. 

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About the author

Suzanne Hilser-Wiles


Suzanne Hilser-Wiles, President, partners with GG+A clients around the globe to help them elevate their fundraising by offering more than 25 years of experience in advancement, program building, and campaign planning and implementation. Throughout her career, she has helped design, rebuild, and reimagine programs by applying her experience with a…