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Museum of Scattered Art: We Visit the de Young Paintings Loaned to Elected Officials -- Whether They Like It or Not 

Wednesday, Feb 12 2014

Perhaps it's for the best that San Francisco isn't a town overly stocked with vast, labyrinthine museums of the sort where entire afternoons are required to explore a portion of a smidgeon of a quadrant of a wing. This isn't the ideal place to store irreplaceable artifacts; the Great Quake of 1906 reduced Adolph Sutro's priceless Hebraica collection to a much more affordable assembly of ash.

It seems more ink has been spilled describing the exterior of the revamped de Young Museum than the contents of its interior. Your humble narrator thinks it looks like a moon base. But it's a moon base housing plenty of great art. The de Young is the closest thing this city has to a "three-hour museum."

There is a more difficult and unpleasant way to expend three hours viewing art from the de Young than simply visiting the place, however. It requires taking several forms of transportation, submitting to multiple, onerous searches of your person and effects, and, more than likely, being politely expelled from a government building.

On the plus side, it's essentially free. And it offers one the chance to be politely expelled from a government building.

Attaining political office in San Francisco, it turns out, comes with an upside other than being ritualistically berated in public by Rose Pak at the Chinese New Year's Parade. Salvation Army décor was all well and good in the days of wine and roses. But a grown-up San Francisco leader requires wall art that doesn't resemble something haggled over at a yard sale. Enter the de Young: The museum runs a program loaning portions of its collection to government officials in a grandiose effort to class up the collective joint.

A number of these paintings now hang far from San Francisco indeed. A William Bradford depiction of Yosemite, we are told, is mounted directly behind Sen. Dianne Feinstein's desk in her D.C. office. Our calls to Rep. Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco bureau querying if two Northern California landscapes were hanging within view of the man answering the phone were, per office policy, shunted to her D.C. bureau. This led to the surreal situation of a man in Washington, D.C., being tasked by a man in San Francisco to tell SF Weekly what that man in San Francisco can see in his office.

No one called back.

Four de Young works — all European, interestingly — are housed in the governor's mansion. The lieutenant governor's office in Sacramento, meanwhile, was described to us as "a glorified closet" — which somehow houses 23 de Young paintings; perhaps some hang from the ceiling.

Queries about 23 loaner paintings blindsided a Sacramento official answering the phone there. A woman in San Francisco was tasked by the woman in Sacramento to tell SF Weekly what that woman in Sacramento couldn't see in her office.

No one called back.

A stark decision is proffered to those visiting the Federal Building's top floor. An arrow pointing to the left reads "Cell Block." An arrow pointing right states "Receptionist."

For those fortunate enough to have a choice in the matter, visitors to the reception desk are instructed to pick up a phone and punch in a four-digit code; the numerical keypad is pristine, but those four numbers have been worn to nubbins. The wall art visible behind a plexiglass window doesn't inspire confidence: It's a John Wayne movie poster.

Queries about the seven de Young-loaned landscapes gracing District Court offices are politely shunted from one federal official to the next, all of whom may or may not have heard of the de Young Museum, but had no idea its wares were housed within the building. Perhaps out of compulsive helpfulness, one woman admits she has no clue where to find any paintings — but notes that anyone can always find a cup of coffee at the second-floor commissary. "I hear it's really good coffee," she adds.

It may even be museum-quality.

A librarian on the 18th floor says she's pretty sure the sought-after artwork is hanging, off-limits, in the judges' dining room (she describes the art there as "landscapey"). We don't leave empty-handed, though: A chocolate bar supporting her son's Catholic school costs just $2.

Mention "paint" in the same sentence as "Hall of Justice" and the term "lead-based" will likely be evoked. We can assume Julian Rix was using unleaded stuff to craft a pair of landscapes hanging in the District Attorney's office. But no one's licking them to find out.

DA officials are pleased with the 114-year-old paintings. But they seem most impressed with the elaborate, interlocking brackets used to affix these shoebox-sized oil paintings to the wall. The Hall of Justice is a seismic minefield; a major quake will reduce this place to asbestos powder and unleash a Nicolas Cage movie upon society as surviving prisoners arm themselves and hijack a Google bus.

Rix's paintings, however, aren't going anywhere.

The pot of loaned de Young artwork at the end of the rainbow turns out to be City Hall. That's also the place where workers are accustomed to odd people in soaked raincoats barging into offices and making bizarre requests.

Staff at the Sheriff's Department is gracious, unearthing the forms allowing them to possess a portrait of the dour former Sheriff Charles Doane. The paperwork resembles preexisting damage reports filled out by car-rental customers; Doane has a few dings on his hairline and frame. It turns out erstwhile Sheriff Mike Hennessey sought out this painting not for its subject but out of fascination with its artist: Charles Nahl, a member of the Vigilance Committee of 1856 and the creator of its stunning imagery. Doane glowers in his 1862 portrait. Perhaps he was aware he'd die that year.

The City Administrator's office features three de Young works: A charming 1866 landscape of paddle-wheel steamers churning through the bay; an image of a man resembling William S. Burroughs eying a distant Coit Tower; and a piece called "Chocolate Ship" depicting rock formations on the Farallones — where there is much guano but little chocolate.

Finally, Supervisor Eric Mar ostensibly has a pair of paintings, but his staff wouldn't let your humble narrator in to appreciate them. The supervisor was holding some manner of meeting within his chambers, which likely means that, come next week, some guilty pleasure of yours will be banned.

His office isn't lacking in fine art, however. Virtually hidden atop a cabinet is a delightful representation of an articulated Muni bus: The accordion midsection appears to be an old bedspring; ads and passengers are rendered in charming comic art; and the wheels are woodcuts with eucalyptus nut hubcaps.

At last: Public transportation for the faeries. The bus's body may have been an old cinder block; tapping a ballpoint pen against it revealed it to be rock-hard. This also induced an aide to snort "Don't touch that! It's on display!" The receptionist, wearing that strained expression of fear, impatience, and boredom used on people who opt to remove their pants at chain restaurants, says the magic words: "Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

When people say, "Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to leave," they rarely follow through and actually ask you to leave. It's just sort of implied.

Well, fair enough. That was enough fun for an afternoon. Your humble narrator's exit was, dare we say it, artful.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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