Case Studies

Gustavo Salas – Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The art of reinvigorating museums—and the treasures they hold

As a longtime member of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gustavo Salas has spent many hours exploring the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park. Yet, he never expected he’d one day get to work at his favorite places to visit.

Only when he began working remotely for his previous job did he realize the toll his hours-long daily commute had been taking on him. So, when the position at FAMSF opened up, he jumped at the chance to not only become a director—a personal career goal—but to have a job he could walk to. In December 2021, he became the museums’ director of facilities and operations.

Gustavo Salas | Director of Facilities and Operations | Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Gustavo Salas | Director of Facilities and Operations | Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

One of his tasks has been to tackle plans for improving the gallery space in the Legion of Honor. The building, which is the city’s largest public arts institution at over 100,000 square feet, is a century old, meaning it has charm, tradition—and is in desperate need of upgrades.

“We’re starting with one of the most exciting aspects of the process: the design phase,” Salas says. “We’re looking at preserving the history and unique architecture of the building while adding some needed updates to properly highlight and use the gallery spaces.”

Lighting up the past—and future

For the design phase, Salas and his team are working closely with the museums’ engineers to implement the architect’s plans. The first stage of renovation is expected to take place over the coming year.

The Legion of Honor already requires a lot of attention because of the nature of its contents: priceless artifacts and other pieces of historical significance. Salas and his team are constantly monitoring temperature and humidity, which they’ll continue doing while overseeing renovations.

The goal is to best utilize space not just so the building looks modern while retaining its traditional charm but also to ensure the safety of visitors and the exhibits.

“We want to preserve the soul of the Legion of Honor, while having it at the same high functioning level as the newer, larger de Young building,” he says.

That’s why they are planning to make adjustments to lights, paint, flooring and artwork casing in the galleries.

“We’re the glue of the organization; we touch everything,” says Salas, who is responsible for anything related to construction.

When speaking with Blueprint in April, he was starting another project that will analyze and improve the space in both museums.

As he explains, the current configuration of space does not work for the size of the teams. The organization has experienced significant growth, creating some challenges in finding adequate space for staff. The plan is for an architecture and engineering team to conduct a space analysis that includes five-to-10-year staff projections.

Additionally, Salas and his team will provide some options and solutions that include potential space reconfiguration, tentative improvements and costs. They will also create an implementation plan with a timeline.

To do so, he’s researching and reaching out to various architectural firms and teams to assess both buildings. This is essential to the future of the museums as space has become rather scarce, he says. He’s hoping to hear back in about four weeks and aiming to have a full team on board within two months. This effort dovetails with his passion for creating a collaborative workforce and a more dynamic space, not just for the visitors but also the museums’ team members.

Gustavo Salas | Director of Facilities and Operations | Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

“While some people are still working from home, we have the opportunity to really take a step back and evaluate our buildings and how we’re using each inch of the square footage available to us,” Salas says. “We have the chance to rethink things, and we’re not squandering it.”

Painting a vivid career

While a much simpler and shorter commute was a certain advantage to working at FAMSF, dynamism was key to Salas’ decision. He sees the Legion of Honor and de Young as places that are in constant motion, always evolving.

“I couldn’t work at a static place, doing the same thing over and over again,” he says.

That’s why his career path has wound its way through high-profile, fast-moving environments. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in architecture from California Polytechnic State University and a master’s in business management from Antioch University Santa Barbara, he joined the SGS Group, which provides testing, inspection and certification services.

That’s where his understanding and focus on space needs started. He interviewed users, such as those in the curatorial, development, education, human resources, marketing, information technology as well as engineering web and digital strategies teams. This helped him determine how to best utilize the areas available and create a design facilities reports.

After that, he jumped into a different but equally demanding field. In September 2001, he became the facilities planner for the Judicial Council of California. There, he managed projects from inception to completion while negotiating, preparing and issuing contract bid packages. He planned the relocation of state departments to new spaces and handled everything from budgets and lease negotiations to information technology, feasibility analyses and, of course, space assessments.

Starting in 2007, he worked for over seven years with the Superior Court of California, County of Alameda before diving into the academic world as a regional asset manager at University of California, Berkeley. He oversaw 13 academic facilities totaling over 1.8 million square feet.

So, when the opportunity to take over the facilities at Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco became available, he felt well-prepared. He tells Blueprint he wasn’t expecting how immensely rewarding the role would prove.

“We want to keep everyone safe, happy and comfortable as they spend a few hours or the entire day walking through both museum buildings,” Salas says. “I used to walk these museums, now I’m behind the scenes and it’s an immensely rewarding job to protect the people and the exhibits they enjoy at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.”

View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. VI 2023 Edition here.

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