|This biographical article relies on references to primary sources. (April 2008)|
A native of the Bronx, Desmarais earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the State University of New York, Buffalo, and was a 1983 participant in the Museum Management Institute (later the Museum Leadership Institute program of the Getty Foundation).
In the 1980s, Desmarais directed the California Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside. He was director of the Contemporary Arts Center, in Cincinnati from 1995 until January 2004. From 2005 to 2011, he was deputy director for art at the Brooklyn Museum, where he oversaw 10 curatorial departments, as well as the museum’s education, exhibitions, conservation and library activities. From August 1, 2011, he has been president of the San Francisco Art Institute.
Desmarais was an early patron of some architects who later became prominent. He hired Stanley Saitowitz to design the award-winning California Museum of Photography, which opened in 1989. In 1991, he organized the first major museum exhibition of Morphosis, then the partnership of Michael Rotondi and Thom Mayne, now a Pritzker Prize laureate. Most recently, he commissioned Zaha Hadid to build a new Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, which opened in 2003 and was described in the New York Times as “the most important American building to be completed since the end of the cold war.” The following year, Hadid was the first woman to receive the Pritzker Prize.
He has written more than 100 articles, as well as books, and was awarded an Art Critics Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1979. Desmarais has curated more than 50 exhibitions on various artists, photographers and architects. His books and exhibition catalogues include:
- Roger Mertin: Records 1976-78 (1978)
- Michael Bishop (1979)
- The Portrait Extended (1980)
- Why I Got into TV and Other Stories: The Art of Ilene Segalove (1990)
- Proof: Los Angeles Art and the Photograph, 1960-1980 (1992)
- Humongolous: Sculpture and Other Works by Tim Hawkinson (1996)
- Jim Dine Photographs (1999)
- Stephan Balkenhol (2000)
- Nothing Compared to This: Ambient, Incidental and New Minimal Tendencies in Current Art (2004)
He is also an arts management consultant, specifically strategic planning and board development, in association with AEA Consulting and others.
- Bohem, Mike. "Charles Desmarais, former Laguna Art Museum director, will lead San Francisco Art Institute". Los Angeles Times, 5/19/2011. Retrieved 3 November 2011.
- Muschamp, Herbert (8 June 2003). "Zaha Hadid's Urban Mothership". The New York Times.