I first met Peter Samis on BART. Like characters in a Sholem Aleichem story, meeting randomly on a train yet moving quickly into a deep discussion, we began to talk about art and religion before we had even been properly introduced.
And when, somewhere between Berkeley and San Francisco, I learned he was the legendary curator of interpretive media at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art — someone I had read and learned from for years — I had to laugh.
A national leader in the field of museum education, Samis, 58, runs SFMOMA’s Interactive Educational Technologies team, which produces multimedia content for its galleries, educational center and digital spaces. Although much of his work is technical, at heart Samis is dedicated to helping visitors have the most meaningful artistic experience.
This year, as SFMOMA began renovating its building, Samis has the very Jewish task of helping the institution reinterpret itself as its collection is dispersed into (temporary) exile. After several months, and a handful of collaborative projects around town (including the recently closed exhibition “Beyond Belief” with the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and sculptures scattered around Los Altos and the city’s Crissy Field), there is some serious interpretation to be done.
So I asked him: What does an art institution learn in exile?
“What’s been so interesting about our experiences so far is the way we have been able to democratize our collection,” he said. Over time, key works of art “become icons, while other remain interstitials,” languishing on the margins. By profoundly changing how and where familiar art is presented, the museum has the chance to learn “what new meanings can be made of the work, what stories and narratives can be developed around them.”
The connection between exile and art is a deep one for Samis, who points to the work of two SFMOMA-connected contemporary Jewish artists as inspiration.
One is Helène Aylon, whose “sense of exile, both from the phallocentric art world of her time and from the Orthodox Judaism that oppressed her, is redeemed by the beauty of an unformed shape, an organic tone, a flow born of nature and process.” The journey of making the art is crucial to understanding the work itself.
The other is William Kentridge, whose “extraordinary filmic creations enchant us from the get-go, but then take us to another place — be it South Africa, Ethiopia under the Italians, or Russia — and leave us reeling in the space of imagination, with all the emotions that stories of oppression and liberation bring.”
Samis is no stranger to journeys. Born to Jewish parents in suburban Long Island, he was educated first at Columbia University and then in Paris, where he began to explore the connections between art and spirituality. In 1981, he hitchhiked to San Francisco, where he worked as a docent at SFMOMA’s Van Ness location, before getting his master’s degree at U.C. Berkeley. In 1988, he began working at SFMOMA, pioneering many of its technology-based projects, for which he has won four Muse awards from the American Alliance of Museums. And despite being settled at SFMOMA for 25 years, Samis can often be found teaching or presenting in places like Denmark, Switzerland or Armenia.
Despite being a “believer” in the power of art, Samis is also a self-proclaimed heretic. “I haven’t talked about this publicly, but I see myself as an apostate in the temple,” he admitted with a touch of glee. “My role is to advocate for people who are not believers, and to do whatever we can to give them the depth of experience, to deliver on the deeper promise of art. I have to be skeptical, act as an ombudsman, and represent the person who asks, ‘Why is this art?’ so we can be sure we can actually give them the scaffolding they need to have an authentic encounter.”
Otherwise art becomes idolatry, or narcissism, or both. An art experience falters, for instance, when “millions of people stand in front of the Mona Lisa, only to have a ‘selfie.’ ”
For Samis, our chance meeting on a train, and the conversations it spawned, parallels the journey into art. “There are no maps for it,” he explains. “You have to discover it on your own. It’s all about being surprised.”
Daniel Schifrin is writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.