‘He thought outside the box’: Peter Selz, 1st director of Berkeley art museum, dies at 100


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Peter Selz, an art historian, professor and essayist who was the founding director of the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, or BAMPFA, passed away Friday. He was 100.

Born in Germany, Selz came to the United States in 1936 as a Jewish German immigrant escaping the Nazis. He went back to Europe to study in Paris with a Fulbright scholarship and moved back to the United States in 1958, becoming curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Selz — who was described by Lawrence Rinder, director and chief curator of BAMPFA, as “one of the most important curators (in) the country” — moved to Berkeley in 1965 after an invitation from the UC to become the first director of what would eventually become BAMPFA. He finished his tenure in the museum in 1973 and kept teaching in Berkeley until he retired in 1988.

“He thought outside the box — very Berkeley,” Rinder said. According to Rinder, it was difficult at the start of Selz’s tenure to imagine Berkeley having an important museum. “When he got hired, the art exposures at the university were happening at a tiny place. … The museum had no profile,” Rinder said. He also affirmed that the importance of Selz’s work was impossible to measure.

During his last year of life, Selz was still active, writing books and curating art, Rinder said. Selz visited exhibitions at the museum and participated in BAMPFA’s events. On his 100th birthday — April 2, 2019 — he was honored with a birthday party at the museum. That was his last public appearance. 

According to Rinder, Selz expressed hope for the future at his centennial celebration.

“He was still very optimistic about the future, because he saw a lot of good art by young people,” Rinder said.

Contact Yasmin Cristina Graeml at [email protected].