Tuesday, November 3, 2009

San Francisco Art Community Fears Loss of Gap Founder's Massive Collection

By Julie Anne Strack

Reporting from San Francisco — Gap founder Donald Fisher assembled a collection of some of the best contemporary art from the last 50 years and decided he wanted to build a museum for it in the heart of the Presidio, a historic landmark and national park.

After a two-year battle with preservationists, Fisher, 80, abandoned that ambition last month. Now the fate of his collection, which includes about a thousand works by such artists as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Alexander Calder and is conservatively valued in the tens of millions of dollars, has San Francisco's art community fearful that the city could lose an irreplaceable cultural treasure.

"It would be an absolute crime if it left San Francisco," said Dede Wilsey, president of the board that oversees the De Young and Legion of Honor, two of the city's major art museums. "No one could amass that collection now. They couldn't afford it, even in a recession."

The collection, housed in a warehouse and at Gap headquarters in San Francisco, is open to scholars, and Fisher routinely loans pieces to museums. But until an agreement is reached, most of it will stay behind closed doors.

"You could very easily teach the history of art over the past 50 years with this collection," said Hilarie Faberman, a curator at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. Faberman said nearly every piece deserves to be displayed.

The collection, curators say, will probably be pursued by museums around the country.

Fisher would prefer to keep the art in San Francisco, said spokesman Alex Tourk, who added that Fisher and his family have received hundreds of e-mails from residents who don't want the collection to leave.

But Tourk noted that Fisher, who declined to be interviewed, will consider different locations. Museums in Oakland; St. Paul, Minn.; and other cities have expressed interest. No major art museum in Los Angeles has come forward.

There are also rumors that Fisher might house his collection in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where he is a board member. He has negotiated with the museum in the past and still considers the option open. In addition, the De Young Museum is pursuing the collection.

"His priority is to keep the collection in San Francisco, and that's as detailed as he's going to get," Tourk said. "There isn't a site that's on a list as his No. 1 priority."

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