By Erin Sherbert
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In etiquette parlance, the situation could best be described as "delicate." Late last month in the Veteran Building's Green Room, Willie Brown was swearing in a handful of loyal associates as commissioners on various city boards. Among them stood Stanlee Gatti, the 40-year-old interior designer/florist/party architect whose latest monument to extravagance was the mayor's $380,000 inaugural at Yerba Buena Gardens and the public bash afterward on Fisherman's Wharf. In the daily newspapers, Brown had declared that Gatti would become president of the arts board (the commissioners normally vote on the post), so it was a little awkwardly that Jordan appointee Terri Simon approached Gatti after the ceremony, saying, "I'm president of the Art Commission -- I think." Gatti deflected the ticklish moment with a beaming smile and warm handshake.
A few days later, appearing at his first Art Commission meeting, Gatti again typified diplomacy, quietly entering the room and deferring to Simon at the head of the table, behind her "President" nameplate. She presented the nattily clad Gatti to the assembled as "our newest commissioner." He acknowledged their applause and then remarked that, although the position was nothing he had sought out, he "was really very excited to be here." He paused, then announced: "I am of the firm belief that art is probably the most important thing next to love. Integrating it into our culture is the answer to everything." He ended with the hope that his stint on the commission would provide him the opportunity to further that integration.
Nods of approval all around. It appeared that Gatti had wowed another crowd.
Pleasing his audience is something Gatti does well: He has basked in high-society adulation by creating hundreds of soirees ever since he scored his first coup (masterminding the decor for the S.F. Symphony's 75th-anniversary gala, in 1987). His is an art form so rarefied and, by his own admission, so elitist as to be practiced only by the rich.
But few in the city's grass-roots arts network know much about him. According to Laura Brun, executive director of the Lab, an alternative performance/gallery space in the Mission, "I have no idea of what his stand is on the commission's Cultural Equity Endowment Fund -- a very important source of funding for the city's small and midsize arts organizations." Indeed, many might ask what this denizen of the city's upper echelons is doing in the trenches of a municipal commission whose unglamorous work includes fretting about fees for street-artist certification or how to replace the deteriorating pedestals under public sculpture.
Gatti claims the unpaid Art Commission gig took him by surprise, too, swearing he read about his appointment in the newspaper. "That's the genius of Willie Brown," Gatti laughs. "He's so fucking smart. He knew I would never say no to him. There was no way I could refuse the offer."
Gatti has lionized Brown ever since they met at a society Christmas luncheon in 1994. The previously apolitical Gatti felt that he had to help make Brown the city's next mayor: "He was so powerful, so impressive, so inspiring," Gatti recalls of their meeting. Once Brown stepped into the mayor's race, Gatti hosted, in addition to a fund-raiser, a breakfast at which Brown spoke extemporaneously from questions the couple-dozen high-powered guests had submitted anonymously, which clinched it for Gatti: "I felt we needed Willie Brown to reverse the decline of a great American city."
So far, there's been little glory in Gatti's new links to the mayor -- at least in the press. In the Chronicle, he has only recently graduated from the paragraphs of society scribe Pat Steger to those of King Caen. The promotion wasn't the most flattering; Caen honored Gatti by noting in his Feb. 20 column that the designer was "rapidly becoming a household name like Tide (out) and Drano (in)." Reporters Phil Matier and Andrew Ross have been even less generous, often casting Gatti as a fussy decorator who speaks in clipped phrases and designer colors. Once, they even implied he resembled the swishy wedding planner in Father of the Bride.
Matier and Ross' most recent jab depicted Gatti's interest in saving the Union 76 sign near the Bay Bridge ramps as the musing of an eccentric, an idea slightly left of reality. But Gatti was sincere, even offering to store the big sign in his design firm's warehouse till a proper home -- a museum devoted to the city's architectural and advertising relics -- could be found.
From his office on Howard in SOMA -- a loft that highlights his eclectic yet oddly harmonious thrift-shop and flea-market treasures along with some classic '50s furnishings -- Gatti expounds on what he sees as necessary for the city, artwise: more sculpture for art-starved neighborhoods like the Richmond and Sunset and -- yes -- even the well-to-do Marina (where, he claims, "there's no art to speak of"); continued support for visual arts and murals in the Mission; and the creation of "beautiful, wonderful landmarks" in Hunters Point that will help its residents reclaim the area as a desirable place to live.
Gatti also pushes for more exposure for the city's video industry: "We are the country's leading center for independent video production." That alone, he says, made him a supporter of the Jumbotron video screen that traditionalists blocked from Union Square. "We've got to do more to promote what is created here. ... As much a visual city as San Francisco is, we're aging now, and we have to look into ways of regenerating our vitality. We've rested too long on our laurels."