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Organ Failure 

An ambitious plan to relocate a historic pipe organ to the Embarcadero threatens nothing but sour notes

Wednesday, Dec 26 2001
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Supporters are even trying to wangle $500,000 from the San Francisco Arts Commission -- against the Arts Commission's wishes. The money was originally intended for Embark, a giant sculpture of a foot that was commissioned for Justin Herman Plaza. When the idea was announced, during a slow news week in May 1999, it became a public laughingstock. After the Board of Supervisors voted down the project, Haas asked the Arts Commission to consider using the Embark funds to install the organ.

The Oct. 10, 1999, meeting of the Transportation Commission (which oversees the Arts Commission) took on the matter. Visibly nervous, Arts Commission Executive Director Rich Newirth struggled to explain that an organ installation fell outside of his department's mandate: "Art enrichment" means commissioning new and original works of art. Using Arts Commission funds for what is essentially a construction project, he explained, would set a dangerous precedent; what would stop the city from later asking his department to give money, say, to repair F Market trolleys because somebody thought F Market trolleys were "art"?

Supervisor Bierman, who in various meetings fondly recalled her sister's church-organ playing in her native Nebraska, became agitated. "I'm getting so angry at this whole thing," she snapped. "After it's installed, it's an art project." Supervisor Michael Yaki chimed in, arguing that the organ surely counted as "art enrichment."

"I'd prefer you not call it art enrichment," Newirth said.

Haas spoke on behalf of the project. "Raising $5 million is very difficult," he said. "We've begun to approach private donors, and $500,000 from the Arts Commission is an important sign that the city is behind this."

"Would you be happy if this goes to some other city?" Bierman asked Newirth. "We've worked very hard to keep this organ. To me, the Arts Commission is taking as uncooperative a stance to a music project as I've ever seen. Have you looked at a pipe organ lately?"

"I know it's a matter of splitting hairs," Newirth offered. "But the commission is feeling a threat that this might be a precedent-setting action that could harm the authority of the commission."

Bierman cut off the discussion. "You have turned us down, that's clear," she said dismissively, as if the Arts Commission were a child with whom she was severely disappointed.

At its next meeting, the Board of Supervisors approved urging the Arts Commission to give $500,000 to install the organ.


To Edward Millington Stout III, it's all wasted money. In his mind, as with many other critics, the only logical place for the San Francisco municipal organ is in an enclosed room, not an outdoor pavilion. "I would be very supportive with that organ going into a decent acoustical setting where it could shine forth as it was intended," Stout says.

"Everybody's gotten on this bandwagon that we've got to save the organ -- just for this desperate clinging-on, we've got to save the pipe organs," he says. "But if people don't enjoy it, and if it doesn't speak on its own behalf, people will say, "Why did we spend all this money on it?'"

About The Author

Mark Athitakis

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