Many people, not only in Santa Barbara, but also throughout California and beyond, will sorely miss Karen Sinsheimer, who died on July 28 of pancreatic cancer at age 73. As a result of her 25-year tenure as curator of photography at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the public enjoys a legacy that’s grounded in the thousands of exemplary art works she collected there, yet transcends these images to embrace culture and humanity in the broadest sense.
With more than 120 exhibitions to her credit, including milestone explorations of California photographers, 19th-century travel photography, Hollywood studio portraiture, the intersection of photography and science, the photography of the Civil Rights era, and the emerging photographic traditions of such Pacific Rim countries as Japan, China, and South Korea, Sinsheimer consistently extended the boundaries of the curator’s art in ways that were prescient, imaginative, and socially conscious. Her acumen in discerning and cultivating new talent was legendary, as demonstrated by her early championing of such major figures as John Divola.
The roots of these achievements go deep and extend in multiple directions; every aspect of Sinsheimer’s extraordinary life led to the high degree of expertise she demonstrated in her profession. Born Karen Beatrice Keeton in Denver on April 23, 1942, she graduated from the University of Redlands with a BA in Art History. After serving in the Peace Corps in Thailand, she met and married her first husband, the photographer William Current. Together they settled in Pasadena, where they collaborated on several books of photography. As an employee of Caltech, Karen rose to become the executive secretary of the school’s president, Harold Brown. This coincided with some of the most consequential years in the history of that institution and of science in America. By the time Brown left to become Secretary of Defense, she was separated from her husband and looking for a change.
That change came rapidly and in two parts. First, she left Caltech for another executive secretary position, this time at 20th Century Fox, where she worked for the Chairman of the Board, Dennis Stanfill. At the same time, she began seeing Robert Sinsheimer, a talented scientist she had known at Caltech, where he was chair of the department of biology. Sinsheimer had recently accepted a new position of his own and was facing some monumental challenges as the new chancellor at UC Santa Cruz. The two endured a long-distance relationship for four years, until 1981, when they were married.
What looked at first like withdrawal from the active life of her busy Hollywood routine developed quickly into a full-time role that called upon every one of Karen Sinsheimer’s considerable repertoire of skills and interests. Her early writings on Pasadena architects Greene and Greene led to an invitation to join the board of the Santa Cruz Historical Society, and her contact with the community began to flourish. Faced with all the formal expectations placed on the chancellor’s spouse, she turned obligations into opportunities. The stress of living in a house that was open to official visitors on a daily basis became, through hard work and imagination, the joy of bringing an entire academic community to a deeper knowledge and appreciation of itself. The conversations at her dinner parties, which famously blended interesting people from the community with scholars and students, and the excitement of her legendary Halloween teas contributed not a little to securing a solid future for what was at the time a somewhat precariously situated institution.
All this would have been enough responsibility for an ordinary person, but for Karen Sinsheimer, it was just the start. When Professor Audrey Stanley of the UCSC theater department approached her about the university’s Shakespeare festival, Karen helped get it off the ground by raising money and its profile through her constant support. In a period when science was king of the UC system, she found a way to fund and perpetuate what has become one of the coast’s best theater festivals.
The list of Karen’s accomplishments as the spouse of the chancellor could go on, as she was successful in virtually everything she undertook in that role, up to and including securing an official title — Associate of the Chancellor — and health and retirement benefits for the spouses of all UC Chancellors, an acknowledgment that went some way toward addressing the gender imbalances everywhere in evidence at the time.
When the Santa Barbara Museum of Art was looking for someone to organize an exhibition of California photography for its 50th anniversary in 1990, Therese Heyman, the founding curator of photography at the Oakland Museum, recommended they bring in Sinsheimer as a consultant. Many Santa Barbarans still remember the impact of that show, and none of us who knew the woman who curated it will forget her style, her intellect, or her supreme generosity of spirit.
If you would like to make a donation in Karen’s memory, please consider the Karen Sinsheimer Memorial Photography Acquisition Fund or the Lorna Spencer Hedges Annual Photography Lecture at SBMA or Santa Cruz Shakespeare at UC Santa Cruz.