Contemporary Jewish Museum boss Connie Wolf to leave after 12 years

As a Stanford University undergrad, Connie Wolf took a class on French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Instead of looking at slides projected on a screen, she got a close-up look at the real thing: the expansive Rodin collection at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts on the Stanford campus.

Coming full circle, Wolf has announced she will depart the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco after 121⁄2 years to become director of the Cantor Center — returning to the museum that shaped her years earlier.

Wolf, the director and CEO of the CJM, will stay on through November then assume her new post in January. The CJM board has formed a search committee, chaired by Mark Schlesinger, to find her replacement.

“[The Cantor Center] is a different kind of institution, with different kinds of challenges,” said Wolf, who will be replacing longtime director Thomas Seligman. “I’m stepping into a different arena: museums at universities, which are there to help students and faculty connect to art and ideas. The Cantor has a great legacy on campus.”

CJM board chair David Levine said Wolf has left an indelible mark in the world of Jewish museums.

 

Connie Wolf

“[Connie’s] passion, intellect and innovative thinking have enabled us to become a museum leader in a short period of time,” he said in a statement. “Connie, along with staff and trustees, has created a new paradigm for what a Jewish museum can be.”

 

Excited as she is to return to her alma mater, Wolf, 51, already feels wistful about leaving the Jewish institution she has called home since 1999.

“I’m so honored [the Jewish] community allowed me to partner with them, create this institution and build on what will come in the future,” she said.

During her tenure, Wolf helped steer the CJM from its modest early incarnation as the Jewish Museum San Francisco to the world-class destination it is today. She helped lead the arduous city approvals process, raised more than $85 million in donations and oversaw construction of the Daniel Libeskind–designed facility in the heart of San Francisco’s Yerba Buena arts district.

And she got to cut the ribbon when the new CJM opened to much fanfare in 2008.

“I’ve had a dream job, but I don’t think it’s good for a director to stay forever,” Wolf said. “Institutions need to reflect the times, and it can be very healthy for an institution to have new perspectives brought in, new ideas presented.”

After graduating Stanford in 1981, Wolf served in various capacities at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Rockefeller Foundation, both in New York, before joining San Francisco’s Jewish Community Museum in 1999.

Founded in 1984, and located on the ground floor of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation building on Steuart Street, the museum had a staff of six. Today, housed at its 63,000-square-foot facility, the CJM has a staff of 60 and a 41-member board of trustees.

It has commissioned more than 125 new works of art, has staged more than 20 exhibitions and welcomes nearly 125,000 visitors annually.

“I feel the museum is an incredibly healthy place,” Wolf said. “We have a fantastic board: dedicated smart and insightful. Put that together with a fantastic staff, and somebody out there in America doesn’t realize they have the best job in the world waiting.”

That job for her meant bringing in a series of successful exhibitions over the years, including shows on the art of Maurice Sendak, Marc Chagall, Andy Warhol, Adi Ness and innovative exhibits on Jewish LP recordings and Curious George children’s books.

Wolf remains fully engaged with her work at the CJM. On July 24, she personally greeted visitors for handholding day, a hastily arranged event organized in response to a CJM security guard asking two women to stop holding hands the week before.

“It was a really fun day,” she said. “There was fantastic attendance. Every TV news station came, the Lesbian and Gay Marching Band played ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’ ”

Many were there to see the current exhibition on the life and work of Gertrude Stein. Wolf will stay to oversee the installation of upcoming exhibits on Jewish magician Harry Houdini and the Jews of California.

“I’m going to miss it here,” she said. “I love the CJM. It’s been a love affair, and as in any relationship it’s had its ups and downs, but it has always been fantastic.” n

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.