Private collection becomes very public

SAN FRANCISCO – On a recent morning at the Gap’s corporate headquarters here, a group of children in the building for Take Our Sons and Daughters to Work Day burst into the art gallery on the ground floor. Screaming with delight, they scampered through the unguarded spaces, past a 1963 “Triple Elvis” by Andy Warhol, through a roomful of portraits by Chuck Close and on into a gallery hung with abstract paintings by Ellsworth Kelly. Laura Satersmoen, the curator, who was leading a group of visitors through the collection, yelled after them. “You guys have got to be careful not to touch the artwork!”

It was just another day at the Gap, the clothing chain, where for many years much of the extraordinary art collection of the company’s founders, Don and Doris Fisher, has been hidden away in these ground-floor rooms. Although the collection includes more than 1,100 works, mostly from the 1960s on, they have been seen by relatively few people: Gap employees, the occasional museum tour group and those in the upper echelons of the art world who have the right connections.

On June 25 about 160 pieces from the collection will go on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in “Calder to Warhol: Introducing the Fisher Collection.” Organized by Gary Garrels, the museum’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, the exhibition will showcase the collection’s depth, with 16 of the Fishers’ 21 Warhols, 9 of their 23 Gerhard Richters, 10 of their 24 Sol LeWitts and 10 of their 45 Calders.

But this show is only a teaser for the main event: the moment when stewardship of the entire Fisher collection will be turned over to the museum. That’s currently scheduled to take place in the fall of 2016, when it plans to open a wing largely dedicated to the new holdings. For the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, known for its jazzy Mario Botta building and its uneven collection, the moment is expected to be a game changer. With the addition of the Fishers’ holdings, rich in work by Anselm Kiefer, Agnes Martin and Richard Serra, among others, it should become “the second most important modern museum in America,” just behind the Museum of Modern Art,” said Arne Glimcher, founder of the Pace Gallery in New York, and also “in the Top 10 among modern museums in the world.”

Meanwhile, back at the Gap, where the deinstallation of the collection has been proceeding for over a month, the mood is a bit less ebullient. Although the collection was privately owned by the Fishers, it’s a deep part of the company’s sense of itself, starting with the Gap’s unofficial mascot, Art – otherwise known as “Man with Ladder,” a 1995 super-realist sculpture of a handyman by Duane Hanson.

Although Art will remain at the Gap for the time being, many other equally beloved pieces will not. David Smyton, who manages the company’s travel, events and food services, is planning a party for the departure of “Geometric Apple Core,” an 8-foot-high sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen from 1991 that sits at the entrance to the company cafeteria. Although it may be replaced by a group of 1968 Warhol “Brillo Box” sculptures, “it’s not quite the same,” Smyton said.

Robert Fisher said his father “just loved the fact that they were able to share with a company so dependent on creativity something so creative.” But the origins of the collection were less lofty. When the couple began buying, a few years after they opened their first store in San Francisco in 1969, their aim was merely to brighten up the office, then located in suburban Burlingame, and their acquisitions were limited to prints – although they were good ones, by the likes of Robert Motherwell, Louise Nevelson and David Hockney. But by the time the company went public in 1976, the Fishers had been bitten by the collecting bug, and their ambitions grew in tandem with their fortunes.

“They made very careful selections on their own,” said Glimcher, who began working with them early on, when contemporary-art collectors were rare. And when the Fishers got hooked on an artist, he added, they usually collected the full range of an oeuvre, which “makes the collection unique.”

Unlike many collectors, who often serve on a range of museum boards, Fisher’s sole allegiance was to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and to San Francisco, his birthplace. So it made sense that in 2006, as he neared 80, he began talking to Benezra about bequeathing the collection to the museum.

But in August 2007, once both sides saw that “the stars were not aligned,” Benezra said, Fisher announced that he wanted to build his own museum in the Presidio, the 19th-century Army base that is now a national park. The project encountered strong community resistance. After nearly two years of public hearings, at which Benezra often spoke on his behalf (“The main thing was that the collection stay in the city,” he said), Fisher withdrew his bid.

The final contract with the  San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was worked out with Robert Fisher, who is on the boards of both the Gap and the museum.It  stipulates that the collection will be on loan to the museum for 100 years, renewable for another 25; what happens next will be determined by the Fishers’ descendants. It also stipulates a 75 percent to 25 percent ratio of Fisher to non-Fisher work for the new galleries; that the most important works must be shown at least once every five years; and that work can be deaccessioned only to upgrade the collection and in consultation with the museum, which has veto power over certain pieces.

“For some time now,” Benezra said, “we’ve needed to find a third way for museums and collectors to work together. Hopefully, this might be it.”

Certainly, the agreement seems likely to give Don Fisher a good shot at immortality. And when the new wing is complete, Schwab said, “It’ll be an art paradise.”

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