Exhibition Inquisition

The stuff you look at, but don't see.

Chapter 3 (Part 4): The Fishers & San Francisco

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“We don’t have a lot of choices about what to do with the art if you want someone to see it. You can’t make a deal with a museum to guarantee that the public sees it.”[i]Donald Fisher, 2007

Donald and Doris Fisher founded the retail giant the Gap in 1969 in San Francisco, California. The success of their company allowed the Fishers to amass a contemporary art collection of more than 1,000 works from more than 185 artists. The Fishers’ commitment to contemporary art was also philanthropic: both Donald and Doris sat on the board of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and the couple often lent large selections of their collection to the museum.

Despite the Fishers involvement at SFMOMA, and because of sentiments as in the above quotation, in 2007, the Fishers announced plans to build an independent museum venue in the city to house their collection. The Fishers desired to build a 100,000-square-foot museum in the historic Presidio area of San Francisco, which once served as a military base but is now a national park, and is home to some of the oldest buildings in the city.[ii] The estimated cost of the project was never given, but the Fishers planned on establishing a family trust, which would donate the funds for the construction of the building, and which in the future would be entrusted with operating the museum and conserving the collection. The museum was to be called the Contemporary Art Museum of the Presidio, or CAMP. “I want to have a little curatorial fun while I’m living,”[iii] said Donald Fisher, hoping the museum might open by 2010. The project was contingent on the approval of the board of the Presidio Trust, the organization which oversees the Presidio—a board that Donald Fisher had once sat on.

CAMP Rendering: We want more red tile!

CAMP Rendering: We want more red tile!

The public immediately disliked the project.[iv] The vocal historic preservationists of San Francisco were outraged, of course. The modern, glass-dominated architecture presented in renderings was criticized for being insensitive and out of touch with the existing structures of the Presidio. Some complained about the usage of public parklands being given over to private interest, some questioned if the museum project was even legal usage of national parkland. Still others brought up the most pertinent question: why would the Fishers (long-time supporters of SFMOMA) introduce a competitor institution to San Francisco, instead of donating the collection (or a portion of it) to the existing SFMOMA? The argument for CAMP made by few was that a culture capital like San Francisco could surely do with more venues for the arts and culture.

The Fishers were willing to negotiate and work with the community, and offered revisions to the architectural design: a second proposal put much of the museum underground and significantly reduced the profile of the museum, and the Fishers sweetened the proposed public-private deal by offering an additional $10 million for park maintenance.[v] The public still hated it.[vi] CAMP was not to be, mostly because of the large vocal public that opposed the project. For a while the Fishers gave up on San Francisco, and even debated other cities as possible locations for their museum.[vii] But Donald Fisher had also gotten ill, and seemed unwilling to fight a battle with a public well versed in expressing its concerns in the liberal social-political environment of San Francisco—so another amicable solution was sought.

“I like to think of the Presidio as pursuing a hot partner. Coming back to SFMOMA is more like a planned marriage.”[viii]Bob Fisher (son of Don and Doris), 2010

When the Fishers realized CAMP wouldn’t be, they turned to SFMOMA. Days just prior to Donald Fisher’s death, it was announced that the Fishers would donate their collection to the museum, kind of. The Fishers agreed to loan the works in the collection (on long-term for 100 years, the loan to be renegotiated thereafter): additionally, they would provide funds towards a significant expansion of SFMOMA.[ix] The Fishers provided $250 million for the expansion, which will triple the museum’s exhibition space, and SFMOMA had the task of raising the additional funds through a capital campaign. SFMOMA’s self-identified goal was to exceed the Fishers’ gift and raise an additional $255 million to support the expansion.[x]

A Mark di Suvero sculpture lent by the Fishers to SFMOMA’s offsite exhibition at Chrissy Field.

A Mark di Suvero sculpture lent by the Fishers to SFMOMA’s offsite exhibition at Chrissy Field.

Last May, SFMOMA announced it had exceeded its initial fundraising goal and was setting a new one of $610 million, of which $570 million has already been raised.[xi] The museum closed to the public and broke ground on the expansion last summer and is on track to completing the project in early 2016. During construction, the museum decided to forgo spending large sums on renting a temporary location, and instead decided to organize an impressive offering of offsite programming, branded SFMOMA On The Go.

While the Fisher gift came with the necessity of raising more-than-matching funds, SFMOMA seems capable and up to the challenge—and the museum has the support of the local public. Again this is not an outright gift, but a 100-year-long public-private agreement, which will be renegotiated by Fisher descendants: illogically people who are probably not yet alive—those must be some loooong-term development schemes. In the agreement, a separate trust will oversee the collection (as in the CAMP proposal) and collaborate with the museum to insure that the Fisher collection is integrated into the museum’s existing (and in the future, expanded) collections when the Fisher collection is displayed in the new expansion.

The project is widely supported by the City and the public. Part of this is encouraged by the breath-taking designs and also the urban context of the expansion. SFMOMA is not located in an overly historic neighborhood or open park space as CAMP would have been, but rather in the SoMA–a dense urban area. There was hardly a murmur of protest over the required demolitionand relocation of a fire station needed to accommodate the expansion. The most serious dissent came from the W Hotel, which is worried the expansion will ruin its views; but if anything the expansion will only draw more guests to the W, because of the views.[xii]

Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta has been tasked with integrating the expansion not only into the existing building (by Mario Botta) but also into the existing urban block and the nearby transit station currently under construction.[xiii] Snøhetta is best known for their cultural work including the textural new Alexandria Library in Egypt, and the placid New Norwegian National Opera and Ballet in Oslo. The firm is no stranger to museum projects either and won the dubious honor of designing the highly-contentious National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion at Ground Zero in New York City. Snohetta is also designing the new Golden State Warriors Stadium proposed for the Embarcadero of San Francisco. At SFMOMA, Snøhetta has been tasked with problematizing the question of the essential function of an art museum.

“Is an art museum a place for art with people in it? Or a place for people with art in it.” [xiv]Craig Dykers, Snøhetta Architect

A more open circulation plan trumps post-modernism.

A more open circulation plan trumps post-modernism.

I already miss that Botta staircase though!

[i] Jesse McKinley, “Founders of the Gap Now Plan a Museum,” New York Times, August 8, 2007.
[ii] Sarah Hromack, “CAMP revealed: Fisher Delivers Design,” CurbedSF, December 4, 2007, sf.curbed.com/archives/2007/12/04/camp_revealed_fisher_delivers_design.php.
[iii] Mckinley.
[iv] Sarah Hromack, “Face Off: Presidio Preservationists Challenge CAMP,” CurbedSF, November 30, 2007, sf.curbed.com/archives/2007/11/30/face_off_presidio_preservationists_challenge_camp.php.
[v] Andy J. Wang, “Rendering REVEAL: Glassier, Shorter, Green-Roofier CAMP,” CurbedSF, March 2, 2009, sf.curbed.com/archives/2009/03/02/rendering_reveal_glassier_shorter_greenroofier_camp.php.
[vi] Andy J. Wang, “Haters Say: CAMP Will Still Ruin Everything,” CurbedSF, April 7, 2009, sf.curbed.com/archives/2009/04/07/haters_say_camp_will_still_ruin_everything.php.
[vii] John King, “Fishers give up on plan for Presidio art museum,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 2, 2009.
[viii] Catherine Bigelow, “SFMOMA celebrates Fisher art partnership,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 19, 2010.
[ix] Kenneth Baker, “SFMOMA making plans to expand exhibition space,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 3, 2009.
[x] SFMOMA press release, “SFMOMA Announces New Capital Campaign Goal,” November 30, 2011.
[xi] SFMOMA, Transforming SFMOMA, http://www.sfmoma.org/our_expansion/expansion_project.
[xii] Heather Knight, Stephanie Lee and John King, “W Hotel objects to SFMOMA expansion,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 5, 2011.
[xiii] Christopher Hawthorne, “SFMOMA expansion plans now include demolishing Botta staircase,” Los Angeles Times, November 30, 2011.
[xiv] Craig Dykers, lecture given at the Art Institute of Chicago, March 6, 2012.

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  1. […] the Fishers, filmmaker George Lucas wanted to build a museum in San Francisco’s Presidio. Lucas wanted to […]


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