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Stanford University


The Stanford family traveled the world collecting objects of art and cultural interest. The museum, founded when the university opened in 1891, was created to make this collection available to students and the public.


In 1891 Jane and Leland Stanford established Leland Stanford Jr. University in memory of their only child, Leland Jr. After Leland Jr. died of typhoid fever in 1884 at the age of 15, the Stanfords decided they would use their wealth to do something for other people’s children by building a great university. A few years later, in 1894, the Leland Stanford Jr. Museum opened its doors.

By the turn of the 20th century, the Stanford museum was the largest privately-owned museum building in the world. Its archeological and ethnological holdings were a rarity on the West Coast, and by 1905 its collection of Asian materials was unsurpassed in the western United States. The museum served as a monument and memorial to Leland Jr., who had been an avid collector himself, and to his mother, Jane, who was dedicated to the educational potential of a great museum.

An Era of Challenge

In 1906, the catastrophic San Francisco earthquake devastated the museum’s building. After the quake and following the death of Jane Stanford, the museum's budget was sharply curtailed because it had not been separately endowed, and the remains of the building fell into disrepair. Curatorship of the collection gradually ceased. Soon the museum began to share its building space with various other university departments. Over the years, the art collection was decimated as works were lost or sold.

Finally, in 1945, the museum closed in order to conduct an inventory of the art holdings. At that time, the art department divested the museum of worthless material and also of some paintings and sculptures from the original family collection that are now judged to be of artistic and monetary value.


In the early 1950s, community interest prompted the university to recommend permanently reopening the museum. Finally, in 1954, the museum reopened, but its true revival occurred some years later under the leadership of Professor Lorenz Eitner, who became chair of the Department of Art & Architecture in 1963.

During the next 25 years, with the assistance of faculty, staff, and the Committee for Art at Stanford University, the galleries were refurbished, the collections strengthened, and a robust program of exhibitions, educational services, and publications put in place. The re-opening of the museum was part of the university's revitalization of the humanities under Stanford Dean Robert R. Sears.

Earthquake Damage Ushers in a New Era

In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake brought another wave of severe damage to the museum, and once again it was closed to the public. Even with the campus-wide devastation caused by the quake, the university made a commitment to restore and expand the museum, which was an important teaching resource. In 1991, the university hired Thomas K. Seligman to direct the rebuilding of the museum and its redefinition as a center for visual arts dedicated to educating and serving a diverse audience of students, faculty, regional school children, families, and the broader public.

The historic museum reopened in 1999 as the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts after the completion of a new wing and a refurbishing of the old building that had begun four years earlier. In July 2005, the Cantor Arts Center welcomed its one-millionth visitor.


Thomas K. Seligman, who had served for two decades as the John and Jill Freidenrich Director of the Cantor, stepped down in 2011. From 2012 to 2016, Connie Wolf, former director and C.E.O. of San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum, served as the Cantor’s director.

Susan Dackerman took the helm as the Cantor’s John and Jill Freidenrich Director in September of 2017, having served previously as the Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator at the Harvard Art Museums from 2005 to 2015 and as a Getty scholar and consortium professor at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles from 2015 to 2017.

Further Reading

To learn more about the history of the museum, see Building on the Past, Richard Joncas's documentation of the rebuilding project, and Museum Builders in the West: The Stanfords as Collectors and Patrons of Art 1870–1906, by Carol Osborne, a former associate director of the museum.