Issue #218  8/29/2015
Santa Barbara Museum Curator Karen Sinsheimer Dies of Cancer
Karen Sinsheimer
Karen Sinsheimer

Karen Sinsheimer, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art's Curator of Photography, has passed away after battling cancer. 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, 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 from October 18, 2015 - February 14, 2016

In addition, during her time at SBMA, the photograph collection grew extensively to nearly 7,500 works. 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, 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 Sinsheimer's vast knowledge of and passion for photography, the Museum's collection has attained national stature.

In 1998, 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 and former Museum trustee Lorna Spencer Hedges. To date, the group has funded ten exhibitions and the acquisition of over 200 photographs.

Sinsheimer 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.

Anne Tucker, photography curator Museum of Fine Arts, Houston noted, "She was not so well known but in her quiet, graceful way accomplished so much in a town that didn't realize before that it needed photography programs."

New York Gallerist Deborah Bell said, "Karen Sinsheimer will be sorely missed by those who have worked with her in the photography world. Her openness to offers and ideas, her delightful and disarming sense of humor and her genuine kindness made every interaction a joy. The last time I saw Karen was at Classic Photo LA in January 2015. Although she had warned me that I might not recognize her due to the treatments she had undergone for cancer, I thought she looked as vibrant and healthy as ever. Therefore it came as a shock to learn that she has left us so soon."