Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Lesbian at the helm of a major museum

Fine Arts

Meet Contemporary Jewish Museum director Connie Wolf

Contemporary Jewish Museum director Connie Wolf. Photo: Kira Sugarman
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At long last, the Contemporary Jewish Museum is set to open, June 8, in its Daniel Libeskind-designed, 63,000 sq. ft. home located in the Yerba Buena arts district. Connie Wolf, CJM's dynamic director, is on top of the world. Having spearheaded construction of the facility, Wolf, a Stanford grad and former Director of Education at the Whitney in New York, is in the enviable position of presiding over a brand-new space and custom-tailoring both the visitor's experience and the museum's approach to programming and exhibitions.

While much has been written about the building design, its dramatic steel cube poised at a precipitous angle, and there's talk of upcoming shows, including one on Gertrude Stein slated for 2010, what's lesser known is that Wolf is an out lesbian, a rarity in a high-profile museum job. In a field whose upper echelons are largely dominated by males, barriers to advancement have lessened to some degree for gay men — locally, Larry Rinder has just been appointed to BAM, and top-notch curator Gary Garrels returns to SFMOMA in September — but lesbians remain a minority. However, Wolf, a woman of radiant intelligence and expansive energy, prefers to be judged on her merits rather than gender, religion or sexual orientation. "To be a director of a museum is the most challenging professional experience I've ever had," she says. "Whether I'm defined as a woman museum director, as a Jewish museum director or as a lesbian, first and foremost, I'm a director of a wonderful nonprofit cultural institution that's beginning a really bold and exciting chapter in its history."

Wolf grew up in a close-knit Jewish community in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she was one of only seven Jews in a high school class of 300. "We were definitely the minority," she recalls. "In some respects, that's where I felt like an outsider more than any other moment in my life. I do know what it feels like to be excluded." That isolating childhood experience, perhaps, has contributed to her emphasis on inclusiveness and tolerance at CJM. "Why I love artists is that they're asking you to think about the world from a different perspective, and to be respectful of others," she says. "I want every visitor to feel included, no matter where they're from. I want them to feel safe, to feel welcome, that they're in an environment where they can explore and think out of the box."

After landing at Stanford, Wolf admits she was surprised by the d

Contemporary Jewish Museum director Connie Wolf. Photo: Kira Sugarman
iversity on campus, which she describes as "a real eye-opener." From there, she went on to hold posts at Boston's Museum of Fine Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA, and the Whitney, before arriving at CJM in 1999. Wolf, who supports NCLR, says she didn't encounter discrimination as she rose through the ranks in her career. "Being a lesbian has never been a barrier. I don't let it be a barrier," she says with characteristic confidence, adding, "Labels don't work anymore. I'm looking forward to the day when no has to ask these questions. I find it a little disappointing that I still have to answer them. I'm a little impatient because I want the questions to be different. I want to be judged on what I accomplish. I want to viewed and valued for what I do."

In her mid-20s, she came out to friends and her accepting family. "There's always a risk, though these days it's different," she says. "You didn't know then how you'd be judged by your family or friends. But then you quickly realized that if they weren't going to accept you, you didn't want them as your friends. Actually, it has always opened doors. It never shuts them." One of those open doors led to a three-year relationship with her current partner, a financial manager in the South Bay. They share a home in San Francisco.

The notion that being Jewish, a woman and a lesbian puts her on the margins of the so-called mainstream is an idea she adamantly rejects. "I think the concept of mainstream is totally, completely history," she asserts. "I feel really strongly that you have to keep being who you are. If people don't respect me for what I do and are going to judge me because of a label of lesbian, that's their problem and their loss. If that's going to be a determining factor in how they relate to me, whether they look at me differently or whether they even want to deal with the museum, I can't worry about that. I just get up every day and do the best that I can do."

More info on CJM: (415) 655-7800 or

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