Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds each week.
When Dr. Forrest McGill makes a house call, there's usually talk of a last will and testament.
McGill isn't visiting patients in their final hours. In fact, he's not even that kind of doctor, but rather the chief curator of the Asian Art Museum, one of the largest museums in the western world devoted exclusively to Asian art and culture. While San Francisco has a large Asian population and the museum is often full of visitors, it has little money for new acquisitions. Curators are regularly in talks with known collectors, encouraging gifts and donations.
On one such occasion, the soft-spoken, bespectacled McGill paid a visit to a local donor's home, politely following the private tour while rapidly compiling a wish list in his head.
"We try not to be too greedy or grasping," explains McGill.
Even thought collectors invite curators into their homes for the very purpose of surveying their goods, they are themselves often conflicted. On the one hand, they want to share their treasures with larger audiences, enriching an exhibition for visitors. Scholars can then learn of the item and garner access, resulting in important research. The item will also be well cared for by a professional staff of trained conservators, ensuring its ultimate survival. At the same time, collectors must consider their own progeny, who have often grown up with the piece and will perhaps develop a greater appreciation as they mature.
Sometimes, however, even the collectors don't realize what's in their own homes. McGill was immediately drawn to a set of chairs in the collector's den, asking whether they were by Lockwood de Forest, a key figure in the American Aesthetic Movement. The collector had no idea who de Forest was. The chairs, his favorite for nighttime reading, were paid for with the cash he had in his pocket, an impulse buy 30 years ago at a sidewalk sale.
McGill, however, had been looking for pieces by de Forest, and called in an expert. The exhibition, "Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts," was fast approaching, and the Asian Art Museum was eager to create a dynamic show by illustrating, through de Forest, "in the same period Indian artists and designers were looking at Western design and incorporating ideas, there was a flip-side, too." De Forest had introduced the East Indian craft revival to America during the gilded age, starting the Ahmadabad Woodcarving Co. with none other than John Lockwood Kipling, father of writer Rudyard Kipling.
Even after the de Forest expert had confirmed their authenticity, McGill had to woo the chairs away. While the donor is happy to visit the "Maharaja" exhibition and see the chairs on display, he struggled to find a suitable substitution for his home. He told McGill that he was finally successful but discerning, making "sure they were not fine ones, so that we wouldn't come again and take his favorite chairs."
The chairs are on display in "Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts," which runs through April 8, at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin (at McAllister), S.F. Admission is $7-$17.