Art for Art's Sake

As the Asian Art Museum prepares to take over the Old Main Library, preservationists worry about the fate of the building's treasures

The inscription over the locked doors of the Old Main Library bears a certain irony: "May this structure throned on imperishable books be maintained and cherished from generation to generation for the improvement of mankind." Below, silhouetted against the soaring windows, statues of human figures representing art, literature, science, law, and philosophy are chipped and mottled with cracks, their detail lost to the corrosion of wind, rain, and time.

Inside, in the dusty silence at the top of the central staircase, 14 murals painted more than 60 years ago preside in lonely symmetry around the rectangular atrium. In muted tones, they represent the land, sea, and sky of the Bay Area. They are the work of Gottardo Piazzoni, whom critics have named the region's pre-eminent artist of the early 1900s. When the library was open, thousands passed these serene paintings, catching a glimpse of a tawny hill, a slate-gray sea, the steely green of a cypress.

But for all their history and quiet beauty, the fate of these murals in their current home -- indeed, the fate of the Old Main itself -- rests with the Asian Art Museum, which will move into the landmark building by the year 2000. Between now and then, a museum-appointed committee will decide whether the murals remain on view where they are; are covered to allow Asian art to be displayed over them; or are moved to another site.

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And therein lies the conflict. On the one side, the city's Art Commission and Landmarks Board back the traditional guard of historic preservationists in opposing changes to the beaux-arts-style edifice and its monumental interior spaces, including the murals (which Examiner art critic David Bonetti described recently as "absolutely wonderful ... conceived brilliantly for their site"). On the other is a newly invigorated Asian Art Museum administration, pleased with the building's prominence in Civic Center and covetous of a certain look, in addition to as much gallery space as possible. If the various parties don't reach agreement on the murals and how the building is to be renovated, the issue may become contentious, drawing the City Attorney's Office and Board of Supervisors into the fray.

Perhaps the people with the most at stake, at least personally, are Piazzoni's surviving daughter, Mireille, and her husband, Philip Wood. Piazzoni lived with the couple in their Richmond District home until his death in 1945; the house today is full of memories of the late artist, including photographs Ansel Adams shot of Piazzoni at work, as well as studies for the library murals. The Woods, painters themselves, naturally took great interest in the murals. In 1975, at their own expense, they installed the remaining four panels in Piazzoni's series (the works had lain in storage at the library for decades); Philip later hand-washed all 14 murals with a small sponge and water.

"We want very much for the museum to keep the murals just where they are," Mireille confesses. "My father painted them for that stairway."

Philip is more blunt: "The Asian Art Museum shouldn't go into a historic, artistically significant building and take away what's there." Reminded of the museum's mission to present Asian art and culture, he parries: "What the hell is culture if you're going take murals off the walls? They don't do that anywhere else. In Europe, people wouldn't think of doing something like this."

Although the Woods do not belong to any group opposing the removal of the murals, they have written the Art Commission many letters and are ardent correspondents for their cause, rallying the support of such experts as art historian Francis V. O'Connor, who characterized any potential change to the works as "an irresponsible and unnecessary loss to the history of the American mural."

A number of local historic preservationists agree with him. "The murals were conceived for that space and work exquisitely there," says Patrick McGrew, who was a longtime member of the city's Landmarks Board and until last year its president. The board, however, is only an advisory panel that recommends landmarking status of historic buildings to the Planning Commission. He points out that the murals have been designated as an "exceptionally significant interior space" in the San Francisco Planning Code, which means that should the museum alter them in any way, including moving them to another site, it would have to secure a "certificate of appropriateness" -- an involved procedure requiring Landmarks Board and Planning Commission approval, subject to appeal before the Board of Supervisors.

McGrew acknowledges that the Asian Art Museum may have its reasons for wanting to reclaim the mural space: "The best one could hope for would be that if the museum doesn't want them, that it move them to an acceptable environment. In the best of all possible worlds, they could work it out."

Still other historic preservationists reiterate that the Asian Art Museum has promises to keep. Stewart Morton, a founding member of the Foundation for San Francisco Architectural Heritage, recalls that in exchange for the group's support of the bond measures that have raised more than $51 million to help retrofit and renovate the Old Main Library, the museum vowed that statuary and other architectural details would remain. Whether those assurances included retaining the Piazzoni murals is now open for debate; the museum's new director, Emily Sano, has gone on record saying she can't envision a home for them -- even though the museum stands to increase its display areas by up to 50 percent in the new location.

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