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Having remodeled the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Harry S. Parker III requests your permission to bulldoze the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum and move it all the way across town

Wednesday, Oct 4 1995
On this particular afternoon, the Director is in the driver's seat. Not literally, of course. Literally, he is sitting in a chair at a table on the sixth floor of the Cartier Building on Post Street, high above diamonds that glitter on celadon silk moire, streetside extravagance behind shatterproof glass. Literally, he is at the right elbow of a horn-rimmedly bespectacled man named Richard W. Goss II, who wears a golden family crest ring on the third finger of his right hand and who is president of the board of trustees of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. This is a meeting of the Executive Committee of the museums' trustees, a convocation of the wealthy and artistically inclined, and the trustees are, at present, picking salad out of styrofoam containers with plastic utensils. They are lifting translucently yellow potato chips from a pile in the center of the table. They are drinking Coke, and diet Coke. Perhaps they are thinking that they are here to make up their own minds about the fate of the city's oldest museum, the M.H. de Young Memorial in Golden Gate Park. Perhaps they are mistaken in that.

"I didn't expect to find any site other than Golden Gate Park I would want to think about for more than 30 seconds," the Director is saying. The light through the windows on either side of him is the color of trout on ice, two days dead. A gray light. Not entirely without radiance. "But I have to admit that some of these sites are kind of exciting," the Director says. The Director's full name is Harry S. Parker III. Only not many people at San Francisco's city-owned museums call him that. It is as if his actual name is redundant, or excessive, or both.

Instead, at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park, and at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor overlooking the Pacific on the northwest nose of the city, a diction -- a dialect -- has developed. He is, simply, "the Director." Different pronunciations impart different meanings to the pair of words that have come to stand in for Harry S. Parker III's given name. It is like any secret language, ripe with meaning, with things left unsaid, with eyes doing the work usually assigned to the teeth and tongue. It is not that they are afraid of him, exactly. It is just that they want to keep their jobs.

Since Parker arrived in town from Dallas eight years ago, things at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco have not been the same. The staff has been cut by 15 percent. The collection has been reorganized, and parts of it are being sold off to buy new art. The unions -- guards and some curatorial staff -- have found themselves under pressure to cut costs. For the first time, the museums have started to collect 20th-century art, like the $1.9 million Picasso sculpture some people love and others say truly belongs across town at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, an entirely separate, and entirely private, institution. Under the Director's watch, the Legion of Honor has been dismantled and rebuilt. And now that the Legion is due to reopen, on Nov. 11, attention has turned to the de Young, the ramshackle peach stucco structure that has been in Golden Gate Park for 101 years.

Big changes await the de Young. The Director, for one, would like to tear it down. Raze it, bulldoze it, color it gone. Tear it down and, perhaps, rebuild it somewhere else. Another part of the city -- maybe down by the water, where it could be like the Sydney Opera House, flashy, internationally known. The Director has been lunching around town, laying the groundwork, so to speak, for this idea. He is, after all, someone who likes to stir things up, keep them moving. Just as he did in Dallas, when he ran that city's Museum of Art. When he built that museum a new building. When he moved the Dallas Museum of Art across that town.

But in this room on this particular afternoon, the fate of the de Young is not just a question of location. It is a question, too, of what the role of a city museum is. Should the de Young, which was founded by a turn-of-the-century newspaper magnate, remain what it has been, a repository of the city's collected history, the splendid and non-splendid alike? A yard sale of a museum, gill-crammed with trivia, trinkets, and treasures? Or should it become what museums increasingly are, an attraction, streamlined, sparkling, catering to the out-of-towner, the art equivalent of Fisherman's Wharf?

Whatever the answer turns out to be, there is this: To touch the de Young, the Director and the board of trustees will need $60 million from the voters of San Francisco.

Which means that you and I, ultimately, are the ones who get to decide.

The room is blue, the color of dusk. To get here I have walked over wood floors, beneath skylights, past scaffolding and workmen, past the Knaack boxes of construction tools lining the walls like wry industrial art. Already, inside this almost-finished Legion, paintings lean against the lushly painted walls, plastic-wrapped against the dust that silts everything, talclike, insistent. I pass a pavilion where sculptures lie scattered on a green-and-white marble floor, bronze leaves on a shiny sidewalk. Farther on, there are religious statues in boxes, their hands tied in front of them like supplicants at the altar of love. And in this room where the walls are dusk-blue, three figures fashioned by the hand of Auguste Rodin hang from a steel crossbeam, bright metal that winks in the weak light. The Three Shades are pressing into each other, lashed together with green sash and white cord, suspended, seductive. The noise of construction -- voices, footfalls, hammers on nails -- echoes, as if from far away.

About The Author

Ellen McGarrahan


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