Born, raised, and educated in the Bay Area, Neal Benezra received degrees in the history of art and in political science from the University of California–Berkeley, and a PhD in the history of art from Stanford University. He worked for many years as a curator of modern and contemporary art at the Des Moines Art Center and at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, before serving as deputy director and Dittmer Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. Through his career, Benezra has organized exhibitions devoted to artists such as William Kentridge, Bruce Nauman, Martin Puryear, and Edward Ruscha, all of which toured to museums nationally and internationally, as well as numerous thematic exhibitions.

In 2002 Benezra began a twenty-year tenure as the Helen and Charles Schwab Director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Under his leadership, SFMOMA underwent a major expansion of its facility, exhibition and education programs, collection, budget, and endowment, becoming one of the most important museums of modern and contemporary art in the world.

Benezra has served on the Board of the Association of Art Museum Directors, as a member of the Bizot International Museum Directors Group and on multiple panels of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Internal Revenue Service, as well as on international boards and committees in Abu Dhabi, Tokyo, Istanbul, Madrid, and Tokyo.

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