After an international search significantly delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, the San Antonio Museum of Art has found its new executive director.

Emily Ballew Neff will take the helm of the 40-year-old institution in January. Neff, a Houston native, will return to her home state of Texas after leading art museums in Oklahoma and Memphis, following a 24-year curatorial career at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

“I am so incredibly excited, I can’t wait to get started,” Neff said, recalling a 1991 visit to SAMA for the blockbuster Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries exhibition.

The San Antonio Museum of Art names Emily Ballew Neff as the new director. Neff has worked in Texas, Tennessee and Oklahoma.
The San Antonio Museum of Art names Emily Ballew Neff as the new director. Neff has worked in Texas, Tennessee, and Oklahoma. Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio Museum of Art

The museum was only 10 years old at the time, and the groundbreaking show impressed Neff, she said. “I remember … thinking, ‘Wow, this museum has really come on strong.’ So it has great DNA.”

She said SAMA’s status as an “encyclopedic” institution and the strength of its collections were primary lures. Mentioning the Latin American Popular Art collection, Greco-Roman antiquities and Asian art, she said, “those are enviable collections. They provide opportunities for people to connect with different cultures, as well as dive more deeply into one zone.”

Adding mention of a growing African American and contemporary Latin American art collection, and Texas and regional art, Neff said the museum as a whole encourages conversations across world cultures and artistic disciplines.

During her tenure at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Neff led a move downtown and into a new building designed by international architecture firm Herzog and de Meuron. SAMA faces the challenge of needing more space to house and display its extensive collection of 30,000 objects, with the potential loss of a new building and acreage next door that had initially been promised by CPS Energy.

“I am aware of the challenges,” Neff said. “And I’m certainly aware of the great opportunities for really delivering on SAMA’s mission for the community.”

SAMA Board Chair Ed Hart siad the New York search firm employed by the museum forwarded a “terrific slate” of candidates during the nearly year-long search, and said Neff stood out.

Asked what most impressed the board about Neff as a candidate, Hart said, “you name it. From my perspective, she’s incredible.”

Hart praised her scholarship, curatorial skills, fundraising ability, leadership qualities and local ties. “The other thing is she is a Texan. She’s got roots here.”

Neff will take over from former director Katie Luber, who led SAMA for eight years before taking over as director and president of the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 2019. Hart recognized co-interim directors Emily Sano and Lisa Tapp for leading the museum through a difficult period during the pandemic.

“They both stepped up and did a remarkably good job of, frankly, keeping us open, keeping us financially sound,” he said.

Neff lauded the museum’s staff, in particular for its recent anniversary exhibition 40 Years, 40 Stories: Treasures and New Discoveries from SAMA’s Collection. Interestingly, the show was improvised when the pandemic caused a hole to appear in the exhibition schedule.

During a recent walk-through, Neff noted how 40 Years, 40 Stories “unsiloed the collections so that you could have some dialogues happening among the different works,” she said, adding that she guessed the experience must have been “liberating for the curatorial staff. … That is about being nimble and resilient.”

Neff has also received notice for two community engagement programs, including the Rotunda Project that featured rotating contemporary art installations in the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art entrance hall, and “Brooks Outside,” which brought the museum “beyond its walls and into the community” at locations throughout the city.

“Art museums are constantly a work in progress. They’re constantly evolving, and you are constantly interpreting and reinterpreting,” she said.

As for what attracts her to her new city, Neff noted SAMA’s place in the contemporary art scene of San Antonio, which she said is becoming “more and more vibrant, which is wonderful to see.

“I can’t wait to be a part of this ecosystem.”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...