Posted: Tuesday, 23-02-2010
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has a plan for its future custodianship of the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, one of the world's great private holdings of late 20th and early 21st century art.
One his most ardent wishes concerning his public legacy - the prominent, and local, display of his artwork - will be fulfilled.
In 2007, Mr. Fisher proposed to fund a new building in the Presidio, a National Historic Monument, to house the family collection and make a gift of it to the city.The San Francisco Arts Commission and those in the art world who knew the collection cheered the Fishers' plan. But preservationists, neighbors of the Presidio and people resentful of Mr. Fisher's wealth and conservative politics offered stiff, often vitriolic resistance to the project.
After efforts to rejigger the proposal to quell objections failed, Mr. Fisher finally withdrew his offer in July. The agreement announced last week, to accommodate the Fisher collection in a planned expansion of SFMOMA, finally relaxed the arts community's fear that the cache of great art might be lost to the city.
Mr. Fisher and his wife began collecting art around the time they co-founded Gap Inc. in 1969.
They learned as they went, he told me in conversation, seeking the advice of people they respected, but always buying only artworks that they personally saw and felt committed to.
As for disagreements over what to buy, Mr. Fisher said that whenever either of them felt strongly about a work, they would acquire it and then discover whether the passage of time would bring a change of heart.
The Fishers' taste has kept to the mainstream. They have committed substantial resources to acquiring works by artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Agnes Martin, Cy Twombly, Richard Serra, Chuck Close and William Kentridge.
All of these artists are deemed blue chip today, but many will still greet pieces in the Fisher collection with skepticism, such as the "blackboard" paintings by Twombly, of which the collection includes one huge, great example. Mr. Fisher may have bought "safe" artists, but he seldom chose safe examples of their work.
Fifteen years ago, public controversy helped to scuttle another patron's promised gift to the city of a large sculpture by Serra, also a San Francisco native. After that debacle, Mr. Fisher commissioned a major indoor work by Serra for the new Folsom Street headquarters of Gap Inc., which will remain there.
Even the museum public that knows Warhol, Close and Serra will be surprised by some very powerful objects in the Fisher collection, such as an ensemble of sculptures by Jannis Kounellis, an artist revered in Europe but comparatively unknown in the United States.
Both unusual works such as the Kounellises and familiar-seeming ones such as the Warhols will enhance SFMOMA's institutional standing almost beyond reckoning.
When I asked Mr. Fisher to name his favorite piece in the family collection of more than 1,000 objects, I was stunned to hear him single out a relatively recent acquisition: Kentridge's animated maquette of a stage design for Mozart's "The Magic Flute." This work, featured in the Kentridge retrospective that began an international tour at SFMOMA in March, has a vivid tenderness that one just does not tend to associate with Republican billionaires.