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Portrait of a Capitalist 

Take a close look at Don Fisher and his motivations for a Presidio museum

Wednesday, Dec 26 2007

For a version of San Francisco history from the perspective of the masses, visit the Rincon Annex at Mission and Spear streets. The cartoonish yet unsettlingly realistic murals Anton Refregier painted there as a Works Progress Administration commission in 1940 provide a suffering everyman's version of our city's past.

This grand old Postal Service building has since been gutted to create offices and a touristy shopping center. But its murals remain as a monument to our country's mid-20th-century WPA spirit of an expansive public realm that seems different in character from today, when amenities such as museums and parks are built and maintained not by the government but by private foundations that exist to create tax write-offs for the rich.

Refregier painted gaunt, El Greco–like figures with sharp-angled features put in relief with intense colors and dramatic contrasts between dark and light. Often described as a socialist-realist, he depicted a world where the weak suffer at the hands of the mighty.

By 1940, San Francisco business leaders had succeeded in turning the memory of the 1906 earthquake and fire into a phoenix myth. The city cared for its least fortunate so well that only a few hundred people died, this tycoon-fashioned story said, and the city was swiftly resurrected to its former glory. In reality, some 6,000 people died and many more were left crippled, impoverished, and homeless.

Refregier chronicled this reality in a scene of starving, injured, dead, or near-death earthquake victims that evokes modern Darfur. In another scene, Irish workers hold Chinese laborers by their hair as they beat them. Another panel depicts the trial of labor leader Thomas Mooney, who served 22 years in prison for a bombing conviction based on perjured test-imony. Refregier's artistic message is that California history for most people consisted of a struggle that was difficult and at times cruel.

The supposedly subversive images so offended Northern California swells that they got Congress to hold hearings to consider a proposal to destroy the murals. The hearing matched the oratory skills of former labor leader and Congressman Jack Shelley against the machinations of Congressman Richard Nixon. Shelley, and the murals, prevailed.

For another perspective on art, where it is used to aggrandize rather than critique capital's commanding heights, walk one and a half blocks to 2 Folsom, the Gap Inc. headquarters. This is the current location of the modern art collection of Don and Doris Fisher, who are backing a plan to build a modern glass-and-steel art museum in the Presidio to house the artworks the Fisher family has collected during the past 30 years.

Just as the history behind Refregier's murals — and the artwork within them — contains the moral that ordinary people deserve better than they get from the powerful, Fisher's private collection has served the opposite purpose. Now displayed in the vast foyer of his government-subsidized penthouse office, his regal collection of investment-grade sculptures, paintings, and statues seems displayed in a way designed to awe the business rivals, politicians, and supplicants he grants audiences to. It turns out he personally pays almost $1 million per year to use Gap's office space to store his art collection. In this light, his proposed Contemporary Art Museum of the Presidio starts to look like a way to transform this private personal expense into a nonprofit museum tax write-off, all the while inflating his image as a public-spirited man.

When it's completed, Fisher's museum will create an artistic statement that is the opposite of Refregier's: The fact that the rich and powerful gain ground at the expense of the rest of us will be portrayed as triumph rather than tragedy.

At its most elemental, Fisher's proposal to move his collection from its current location — which happens to be in the middle of the city's growing art gallery district next to BART and multiple Muni and bus lines as well as myriad other attractions — appears to be an accounting measure.

The Fishers currently pay $900,000 annually to Gap to store their modern art collection at 2 Folsom and in a Gap-owned building on Harrison, according to a June 2007 proxy statement. The 15-year agreement to house the collection at the Gap headquarters runs out in 2016. At that time, the Fishers' rent could theoretically skyrocket, if San Francisco office leases were to increase from current rates during the next nine years.

Fisher has proposed to solve this problem by building a 100,000-square-foot museum in the Presidio, where the old Army bowling alley is now, at a cost of $45 million.

If Fisher's museum becomes the property of a nonprofit foundation, as is ordinarily the case, any money he puts toward its construction would be considered a donation to charity. He could write off a substantial amount from his tax bill, not to mention the tax benefits from any artwork he might donate to the museum. In this way, the massive personal expense Fisher currently incurs maintaining the penthouse floor of the Gap building as a private art museum turns into more of an expense to the government.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing if it creates a public benefit — the U.S. tax code is written to encourage philanthropy. But tycoons and their nonprofit foundations are famous for blurring the line between public and private benefit. So the question becomes: How public-spirited would Don Fisher's museum be?

Possible answers can be found in the way he created the unusual, publicly subsidized, quasi–art museum at the Gap's headquarters, and in the non-public-spirited behavior of charitable institutions he has been associated with.

Questioning the societal benefit of a proposed charity, and a proposed amenity in a city park, might seem strange. But San Francisco has a strange legacy of public museums lacking in public spirit.

Not long ago, the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, which is run by a private foundation that has received substantial backing from Fisher, lobbied to defeat a Car-Free Saturdays proposal that would have opened the streets near the museum for healthful recreation. The San Francisco swells who run the private foundation wanted the streets for use as museum parking lots. So now joggers and baby strollers are confined on Saturdays to a small stretch of roadway far from the park entrance.

Will Fisher's museum similarly attempt to inappropriately co-opt Presidio parkland meant for the public? Current Presidio plans include a promenade linking the Lombard Gate, near the 15-acre Letterman Digital Arts Center — a campus for George Lucas' movie businesses — to the Main Post, where Fisher would like to build his museum. Would these two tycoons treat this swath as their private realm?

Lucas has already set a bad example. Private Lucasfilm security guards roam paved pathways, ordering parkgoers not to ride their bicycles in areas that would be open to all in a truly public national park.

But perhaps Fisher's museum won't be a similar insult to the idea of the public realm. Will it be something more along the lines of WPA creations such as Refregier's, a no-strings-attached gift for anyone to enjoy?

For a possible hint at what's to come, it's instructive to visit the Fisher collection as it is currently housed.

At Fisher's 15th-floor bayside office, elevators open into a city-block-wide art gallery packed with avant-garde statues, sculptures, paintings, and installations. By the time a visitor arrives in Fisher's house-size office, they are imbued with the message that they have obtained an audience with a very important man.

Everyone who visits Fisher — the politicians whom he routinely seeks to intimidate, the business rivals and employees whom he wants to put in their place — must spend a minute or so traversing a complicated maze created with what looks like a billion dollars' worth of investment-grade art.

Upstairs, Fisher's chosen method of displaying his art collection is weird. Downstairs, it's weirder. This is because in this house that Don Fisher built, the massive lobby, which takes up most of the ground floor, seems designed specifically as a space for displaying artworks in a way the public could appreciate them — and in a location that is well-served by public transportation. The Presidio, where Fisher plans his new museum, is a long way from downtown with scant public transit access.

The building's atrium was designed around a 60-foot-high Richard Serra sculpture consisting of steel plates twisted into a curvy, angled obelisk. Indeed, the entire bottom floor appears to have been designed as an art gallery. There are dozens of inset display spaces all over the walls.

Hinting at the space's apparent purpose, Roy Lichtenstein cartoons appear in four or five of these spaces. The rest are decorated with huge photographs of the Gap headquarters and images from Gap catalogues. Further enhancing the building's weird, unused-art-museum quality is a small downstairs art gallery open only to employees between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

It would have made some sense to use the first floor of the Gap building for public display of artworks because Fisher obtained the property and permits with extraordinary help from the government.

In order to obtain Gap's largely empty, mostly off-limits art gallery, Fisher used his influence with city fathers to cut a deal in 1999 by which the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency condemned and seized the property at Two Folsom, whose owner didn't want to sell at Fisher's price. Fisher, a prolific political donor, carries significant influence in California, and especially in San Francisco.

According to a 1997 SF Weekly investigation by former reporter Chuck Finnie, by forcing this cut-rate sale, the Redevelopment Agency sent some $18 million in financial benefits Fisher's way. Further using his political influence, Fisher obtained an exception from downtown development rules that limit the size of parking garages.

You would think that the people of San Francisco might have given Fisher and his company enough private benefits to allow the public to be permitted to view his art collection. But apparently they haven't.

Here's my prediction. Once built, the Contemporary Art Museum of the Presidio will be as much of a private monument to Don Fisher and as little benefit to the public as the old tycoon can possibly get away with.

Somehow, I don't think Anton Refregier would have been surprised.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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