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Charles Desmarais, former Laguna Art Museum director, will lead San Francisco Art Institute

May 19, 2011 |  2:33 pm

CharlesDesmaraisJessicaPalmieri

This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.

Charles Desmarais, the Laguna Art Museum director from 1988 to 1994 until his sudden firing by a museum board that gave no public reason for its action, will be the next president of the San Francisco Art Institute, a 140-year-old university-level school that trains artists, art historians and museum professionals.

Since 2005, Desmarais has been deputy director for art at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City; after Laguna, he was director of Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center from 1995 to 2004, heading a campaign to fund and build a new $20-million facility that opened in 2003 and was the first American project by the British architect Zaha Hadid. The following year, she became the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, the top career award for architects.

The San Francisco Art Institute's board chairwoman, Diane Frankel, said in Thursday's news release announcing Desmarais hiring that he was chosen for his "significant management, financial, and fundraising skills," and for having "played a major role in American and international art through the institutions he has led and through his writing and curatorial work.”

He succeeds Chris Bratton, a video artist, who resigned a year ago after six years in the post to become deputy director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in charge of its own university-level art school.

At the San Francisco Art Institute, Desmarais, who is in his early 60s, said he aims "to enhance the school’s position as both a fundamental part of the Bay Area community and an active participant in the global art scene.” He begins Aug. 1.

Desmarais came to Southern California in the 1980s as director of UC Riverside’s California Museum of Photography. The Laguna Art Museum hired him away with an $88,000 salary, twice that of his predecessor, and a mandate to revitalize its exhibitions.

His tenure included curating the museum's first show on architecture and a critically well-received 1992 exhibition, “Proof: Los Angeles Art and the Photograph, 1960-1980,” that looked at how nearly 50 photographers raised questions about gullibility and skepticism inherent in their art form.

He also presided over the box-office hit “Kustom Kulture,” which examined the intersection between art and a pop-culture phenomenon, custom cars. Before he was fired, Desmarais had set in motion the first museum retrospective on Southern California painter John McLaughlin; when it went up at the Laguna Art Museum in 1996, Times critic Christopher Knight hailed it as a “breathtaking” show that shined much-deserved light on a neglected figure whose cachet has since grown considerably.

Among those who served under Desmarais in Laguna was curator Bolton Colburn, who did not succeed him directly but later went on to serve as the museum's director; Colburn this month announced his resignation -- on amicable terms -- after 14 years.

RELATED:

Laguna museum dismisses more than a director

Bolton Colburn resigns after 14 years as Laguna Art Museum's director

First woman wins Pritzker

For the record 4:03 p.m., May 19: An earlier version of this post said Desmarais had hired curator Bolton Colburn at the Laguna Art Museum; Colburn was already on the staff when Desmarais arrived.

-- Mike Boehm

Photo: Charles Desmarais. Credit: Jessica Palmieri

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