Portrait of a Capitalist

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

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.

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