Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Art for Art's Sake 

As the Asian Art Museum prepares to take over the Old Main Library, preservationists worry about the fate of the building's treasures

Wednesday, Feb 21 1996
The inscription over the locked doors of the Old Main Library bears a certain irony: "May this structure throned on imperishable books be maintained and cherished from generation to generation for the improvement of mankind." Below, silhouetted against the soaring windows, statues of human figures representing art, literature, science, law, and philosophy are chipped and mottled with cracks, their detail lost to the corrosion of wind, rain, and time.

Inside, in the dusty silence at the top of the central staircase, 14 murals painted more than 60 years ago preside in lonely symmetry around the rectangular atrium. In muted tones, they represent the land, sea, and sky of the Bay Area. They are the work of Gottardo Piazzoni, whom critics have named the region's pre-eminent artist of the early 1900s. When the library was open, thousands passed these serene paintings, catching a glimpse of a tawny hill, a slate-gray sea, the steely green of a cypress.

But for all their history and quiet beauty, the fate of these murals in their current home -- indeed, the fate of the Old Main itself -- rests with the Asian Art Museum, which will move into the landmark building by the year 2000. Between now and then, a museum-appointed committee will decide whether the murals remain on view where they are; are covered to allow Asian art to be displayed over them; or are moved to another site.

And therein lies the conflict. On the one side, the city's Art Commission and Landmarks Board back the traditional guard of historic preservationists in opposing changes to the beaux-arts-style edifice and its monumental interior spaces, including the murals (which Examiner art critic David Bonetti described recently as "absolutely wonderful ... conceived brilliantly for their site"). On the other is a newly invigorated Asian Art Museum administration, pleased with the building's prominence in Civic Center and covetous of a certain look, in addition to as much gallery space as possible. If the various parties don't reach agreement on the murals and how the building is to be renovated, the issue may become contentious, drawing the City Attorney's Office and Board of Supervisors into the fray.

Perhaps the people with the most at stake, at least personally, are Piazzoni's surviving daughter, Mireille, and her husband, Philip Wood. Piazzoni lived with the couple in their Richmond District home until his death in 1945; the house today is full of memories of the late artist, including photographs Ansel Adams shot of Piazzoni at work, as well as studies for the library murals. The Woods, painters themselves, naturally took great interest in the murals. In 1975, at their own expense, they installed the remaining four panels in Piazzoni's series (the works had lain in storage at the library for decades); Philip later hand-washed all 14 murals with a small sponge and water.

"We want very much for the museum to keep the murals just where they are," Mireille confesses. "My father painted them for that stairway."

Philip is more blunt: "The Asian Art Museum shouldn't go into a historic, artistically significant building and take away what's there." Reminded of the museum's mission to present Asian art and culture, he parries: "What the hell is culture if you're going take murals off the walls? They don't do that anywhere else. In Europe, people wouldn't think of doing something like this."

Although the Woods do not belong to any group opposing the removal of the murals, they have written the Art Commission many letters and are ardent correspondents for their cause, rallying the support of such experts as art historian Francis V. O'Connor, who characterized any potential change to the works as "an irresponsible and unnecessary loss to the history of the American mural."

A number of local historic preservationists agree with him. "The murals were conceived for that space and work exquisitely there," says Patrick McGrew, who was a longtime member of the city's Landmarks Board and until last year its president. The board, however, is only an advisory panel that recommends landmarking status of historic buildings to the Planning Commission. He points out that the murals have been designated as an "exceptionally significant interior space" in the San Francisco Planning Code, which means that should the museum alter them in any way, including moving them to another site, it would have to secure a "certificate of appropriateness" -- an involved procedure requiring Landmarks Board and Planning Commission approval, subject to appeal before the Board of Supervisors.

McGrew acknowledges that the Asian Art Museum may have its reasons for wanting to reclaim the mural space: "The best one could hope for would be that if the museum doesn't want them, that it move them to an acceptable environment. In the best of all possible worlds, they could work it out."

Still other historic preservationists reiterate that the Asian Art Museum has promises to keep. Stewart Morton, a founding member of the Foundation for San Francisco Architectural Heritage, recalls that in exchange for the group's support of the bond measures that have raised more than $51 million to help retrofit and renovate the Old Main Library, the museum vowed that statuary and other architectural details would remain. Whether those assurances included retaining the Piazzoni murals is now open for debate; the museum's new director, Emily Sano, has gone on record saying she can't envision a home for them -- even though the museum stands to increase its display areas by up to 50 percent in the new location.

All this cogitation puts enormous pressure on the man who is currently responsible for the museum's move. Project Manager Langston Trigg is an architect who distinguished himself on Stanford's new Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital ("I'm a child of the '60s," he declares. "I don't do banks and shopping centers"); his is the formidable task of fitting the museum's collection (currently the de Young's next-door neighbor in Golden Gate Park) into a building not originally intended to be a museum at all.

From his office overlooking Civic Center, Trigg talks openly, if somewhat gingerly, about changes to the Old Main. He prefaces his comments with references to the museum's master plan, whose goals include developing new and younger audiences; reaching out to the city's new Asian communities (the collection reflects a strong representation of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian art, but less from the three dozen other cultures that fall under the museum's "Asian" umbrella); and establishing an identity separate from the de Young. Behind him in the conference room, drawings of banners and signage are displayed on an easel -- all of which, he points out, are merely proposals.

Elsewhere in the office hang the drawings of a proposal for the Old Main of several years ago, drawn up by William Turnbull Associates, showing the Old Main stripped of its statuary, the Piazzoni murals nowhere in sight -- which prompted preservationists to chant "mutilation," "desecration," and other rallying cries. But Trigg emphasizes that no decisions on any of the building's ornamentation or the murals have been made; the design committee, he reports, has yet to hire an architectural team that, in his words, "will walk the line that will respect the building's heritage and make it work for a modern museum."

Trigg wants the move-in process "to represent people in the community," regardless of who owns the building or the museum's collections (in both cases, it turns out, the city does). "I'd love for this not to be another Pioneer Monument," he sighs, referring to the dust kicked up over the decision to move that beloved work off Market Street and into the promenade between the old and new Main Library buildings. "You need to rely on a range of voices and opinions. I don't consider myself an expert in all areas of this issue."

And yet, Trigg maintains that he has a full plate of expectations: demands for as much gallery space as possible; rooms for curators, storage, and repair; a workshop to build exhibits; spaces for a gift shop and cafe. The needs have a way of shrinking what seems a huge building; the stairway and its murals thus come under scrutiny. One important argument in favor of moving the murals, Trigg says, is that the building will be off limits for at least four years. Even once it's open to the public, only those who have paid admission will be able to view the murals.

Of course, Trigg cannot help listening to the higher-ups on the museum's board. One of the most compelling voices belongs to Chong-Moon Lee, a Korean-American businessman who late last year gave $15 million to the Asian Art Museum. Lee at the time issued statements about art serving as "bridges of understanding and peace between people." As for his stance on the building and its murals, he states: "If it's preserved, it's OK. We are talking about art, and we [the museum's board] are custodians of a public asset." Without going into specifics, he remarks: "We can add an Asian flavor to the building. [But] whatever there is that has a cultural value needs to be preserved." This, he notes, is a "matter of personal opinion; I have no influence over what decision will be made."

That self-effacing comment aside, Lee has a point. The question of who has jurisdiction over the Old Main's treasures has not been settled. Technically, all artwork in the city's buildings falls under the Art Commission. But since it and the Asian Art Commission are both chartered departments within municipal government, the City Attorney's Office may have to rule on who has the final say. According to Deputy City Attorney Miriam Stombler, neither side "has asked for a formal opinion yet." When it's appropriate, she says, "My job will be to interpret the law as reflected in the charter." She acknowledges that although "the whole town's speculating about the murals, no one's thrown it in our court." Stombler says there's no conflict yet, "because it's premature at this point."

True enough: Members of the Art Commission have not yet made a policy statement regarding the murals. In the interim, Art Commission staffer Rich Newirth says his department and the Asian Art Museum are "collaborating to make sure the murals are protected and taken care of, even without a clear definition of who has control of them." Ultimately, he says, "We are meeting and working with the Asian Art Museum to reach a resolution without getting into turf battles."

The whole notion of a battle over the presence or removal of a series of murals is emblematic of a city in which the renaming of a stadium probably contributed to the fall of our last mayor. Still, as Piazzoni's son-in-law Philip Wood insists, this isn't an issue of power or politics, but one of mere aesthetics. As a reminder, he repeats the words inscribed over the second panel of Piazzoni's masterpiece: "To be content with what we possess is the greatest of all riches.

About The Author

John Sullivan


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"