In Profile

Sharon Tanenbaum

BY Sarah Schmerler, November 1, 2006

When you pass through the doors of SF Camerawork’s brand-new 6,500-square-foot space this month, make sure that, in addition to checking out the large, crisply curated group show in the front galleries called Ghost in the Machine, you don’t miss a glimpse into the education center in the back, where the work of other, somewhat lesser-known, contemporary artists is exhibited. The color shots on display there were taken by inner-city, at-risk teens as part of a mentoring program called First Exposures, one of the many far-reaching projects fostered by SF Camerawork’s new executive director, Sharon Tanenbaum. In November, SF Camerawork (the city’s only not-for-profit dedicated exclusively to photography) is publishing a book celebrating the 10th anniversary of work by inner-city teens. Included will be a shot of an actual billboard designed by 13-year-old Taylor Mixon that reads, “In the past five years, 5,321 people have died from hate crimes.…How many people have died from happiness?”

“Our focus is on exhibitions by emerging and mid-career artists that push the boundaries of the medium, and that can include content that may be edgy,” says Tanenbaum. “We don’t want people to come here and see what’s in the commercial galleries. And we already have some great museums in the city. We’re proud that what we do isn’t what’s being done elsewhere.”

Tanenbaum studied photography at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, and while participating in an academic exchange program in San Francisco, she fell in love with the city at first sight. Almost immediately after graduating in 1980, she moved to San Francisco with the intent of pursuing her own career as an artist. She soon found herself pursuing work in the city’s many not-for-profits, however, and though she still makes photographs, the 48-year-old Philadelphia native prefers to help other artists with their work rather than focus on her own. “I found I had a good ability to manage organizations and direct them,” she says, “and that I had just as much passion for helping others do their work as I had for my own.”

Still, it’s clear that she brings an artist’s touch to her role, not only in terms of what’s going on the walls, but in terms of helping an institution take the sort of risks it needs to in order to remain vital. A case in point is Tanenbaum’s 12-year tenure at Hospitality House, an arts center serving low-income San Francisco residents. She began as a teacher in 1980 and quickly assumed the directorship in 1981. During that time, she expanded its hours, its exhibition space, its budget (from $40,000 to $500,000), as well as the career opportunities for its artists—even helping to hook them up with for-profit galleries in the city. The next 10 years found her working exclusively as a consultant to a host of other not-for-profits in the city, including the Mexican Museum, the Richmond Arts Center, and the Headlands Center for the Arts. SF Camerawork, under the auspices of its previous executive director, the late Marnie Gillett, was also a client.

“It wasn’t such a big leap,” she says of her transition from director of Hospitality House to consulting, but as she tells it, neither was the transition from practicing artist to administrator. “Back when I was doing my own photography, I was incorporating writing into my work, and that isn’t so far from other kinds of writing—grant proposals, letters to potential donors, mission statements. Photographers have excellent organizational skills.”