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A Tribute to Karen Sinsheimer
SBMA Curator of Photography

The Museum family is greatly saddened by the passing of the highly-esteemed and beloved Karen Sinsheimer, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s Curator of Photography. She was first hired as a consultant in July of 1990 to organize the exhibition From Watkins to Weston: 101 Years of California Photography, in celebration of the Museum’s 50th anniversary. Soon after, she became a permanent member of the staff as the first full-time Curator of Photography and served in that position for the next 25 years.

According to Larry J. Feinberg, the Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Director of the Museum: “Through her keen intelligence, determination, and disarming charm, Karen almost single-handedly built the Museum’s very important collection of photography and established an exhibition program that has earned the institution much respect and admiration from museums and collectors across the country. One could always see much of Karen, herself, in many of the photographs she acquired and the shows she produced. They were, in many cases, psychologically probing or manifested a scientist’s curiosity―and, more often than not, they evinced Karen’s gentle sense of humor. She accomplished a great deal and has left an enormous legacy.”

During her tenure, Ms. Sinsheimer organized more than 120 exhibitions for the Museum, many accompanied by a publication and some that have traveled to national and international venues. Among her major exhibitions were: Excursions Along the Nile: The Photographic Discovery of Ancient Egypt (1994); Revealing the Holy Land: The Photographic Exploration of Palestine (1998); First Seen: Portraits of the World’s Peoples (1840–1880) (2005); Garbo’s Garbos (2005); Made in Santa Barbara: Contemporary Photographs (2007); Made in Hollywood: Photographs from the John Kobal Foundation (2008); Of Life and Loss: The Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky (2008); Chaotic Harmony: Contemporary Korean Photography (2010); and John Divola: As Far As I Could Get (2013). Most recently, she had been organizing the show Looking In, Looking Out: Contemporary Latin American Photography, which is scheduled to open in October of 2015.

In addition, during her time at SBMA, the photograph collection grew extensively to nearly 7,500 works. Ms. Sinsheimer built several areas of particular strength in the photographic collection, notably works from the 19th century, the Americas, and Western Pacific Rim, as well as important photojournalistic and documentary images, and many related to the sciences, especially astronomy, biology, and zoology. A visionary curator, Ms. Sinsheimer was often a trendsetter, collecting the works of emerging artists and of photographic genres before they became widely recognized. Thanks in part to significant gifts from collectors Yolanda and Arthur Steinman, Jane and Michael G. Wilson, and Howard Stein, who were impressed by Ms. Sinsheimer’s vast knowledge of and passion for photography, the Museum’s collection has attained national stature.

Due to their profound respect for Ms. Sinsheimer and her kind and thoughtful support, hundreds of photographers, as well as art dealers and galleries representing them, have donated their works to the Museum over the years. In 2002, documentary photographer Pirkle Jones donated more than 90 of his prints. In recent weeks, the photographers Melanie Walker and Nancy Webber, among others, gifted their works to the Museum. Under Ms. Sinsheimer’s leadership, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art's Department of Photography joined photography curators from the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) to create an informal consortium dedicated to representing the careers of significant California photographers in their collections. Specifically, Ms. Sinsheimer oversaw the gift of over 60 Eileen Cowin prints to the Museum in 2014.

In 1998, Ms. Sinsheimer was responsible for helping to found PhotoFutures, the Museum’s dynamic curatorial support group that is dedicated to building the SBMA’s photography collection and to promoting community interest in the collecting of photographs. The group, comprised of some 45 members, has sponsored numerous exhibitions and lectures over the years and, recently, has made plans to establish an annual photography lecture, in honor of longtime member, a former Museum board member and Life Honorary Trustee, Lorna Spencer Hedges. To date, the group has funded ten exhibitions and the acquisition of over 200 photographs.

Ms. Sinsheimer received her B.A. in Art History from the University of Redlands and took graduate courses at the University of California, Berkeley. While married to photographer William Current, she and her husband received NEA and Graham Foundation grants to produce two traveling exhibitions, accompanied by publications, for the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Ms. Sinsheimer was a board member of the Joy of Giving Something Foundation, since 2004. She is survived by her husband Robert L. Sinsheimer, Ph.D., Chancellor Emeritus and Professor Emeritus of Molecular Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

If you would like to make a donation in Karen’s memory, please consider The Karen Sinsheimer Memorial Photography Acquisition Fund, SBMA; The Lorna Spencer Hedges Annual Photography Lecture, SBMA; or Santa Cruz/Shakespeare, UC Santa Cruz.

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