deCAMPed: Will SF Say Goodbye to the Fisher Collection?


(Previous VR posts on this subject can be found at A Day at CAMP: Thoughts on the Fisher Collection and The Evolving Uses of the Presidio: CAMP Update.)

John Chamberlain

John Chamberlain sculpture of crushed sheet metal/car parts in the Gap, Inc. lobby.

In a not unsurprising move, Donald Fisher officially announced Wednesday that he would withdraw his proposal to build a museum (CAMP) for his contemporary art collection on the Parade Grounds of the Presidio’s Main Post, making the prospects for keeping the collection in San Francisco seem ever more remote. Options are still available. Perhaps Fisher and SFMOMA will work out a suitable arrangement. Fisher could seriously consider the other Presidio site, the Commissary (currently home to the Sports Basement), which was mentioned early on by the Trust as its preferred alternative site.  A worst-case scenario might force Don Fisher to decide whether he would rather give up some curatorial control to MOMA in return for real estate in a prestigious downtown location or maintain absolute curatorial control in a more remote (and less prestigious) location. On the other hand he might just get a best offer from any number of other cities—Houston, Chicago, Miami, Boston.

The nearly two-year vetting process has pitted steadfastly competing interests against one another. Preservationists and neighborhood groups squared off against Fisher’s largesse, egotism and stubborn pride. And, as is often the case, the process of this rancorous bickering over often parochial interests nearly drowned out advocates for the public good—the greater economic, social, and psychic good of maintaining a broad and deep cultural collection in our city.

Finally, on Wednesday Donald Fisher signaled that he’d had enough, commenting: “Doris and I will take some time to consider the future of our collection and other possible locations for a museum, which could include other sites within the Presidio and elsewhere.”

For a lot of reasons, many consider the MOMA scenario to be the most sensible alternative. But the Commissary site (off Mason Street) at the Presidio is not a bad option. A contemporary art museum presents a vast improvement to the eyesore that currently occupies the site (temporarily in use by the Sports Basement).  Built in 1989, the Commissary is not protected as an historical structure. The plans for renovating Doyle Drive (construction begins in 2011) include an underground tunnel at the southern edge of the site that will camouflage traffic from the field below. Further, the tunnel’s grassy mound will slope gently towards the site, creating the feeling of a park. The restored (and protected) Crissy Field with its marshlands and beach, not to mention the wild frothy waters of the Bay and emblematic Golden Gate Bridge beyond, would be an impressive sight indeed from the second-story window of a new building . . .

One thing is for sure: if the Fishers’ ambitious and high-quality collection ultimately lands elsewhere, the real losers will be not only be the impersonal “city of San Francisco,” but the very personal you and I. The city will perhaps loose the incremental tourist revenue that comes with a world-class museum, nothing to scoff at.  You and I on the other hand will miss out on an huge chunk of American culture (there are over 1,000 pieces in the collection), as well as the incalculable joy of exercising our imaginations, while contemplating works by Agnes Martin, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Philip Guston, Richard Long, David HockneyElizabeth Murray, Ellsworth Kelly, Brice Marden, Sean Scully, Chuck Close, William Kentridge (visitors to the recent MOMA exhibit will remember that the Fishers own many Kentridge’s pieces), Jeff Wall, Bill Viola, and Sigmar Polke, among many others.

Now is a time like no other for the public to stand up for the public good. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s MOMA or the Commissary—both are fine options—just as long as the collection stays here. Letters to the Fisher, the MOMA or Presidio Boards, the Chronicle could help influence the decision. We can’t afford not to.  Otherwise, the final words might best be the refrain from Joni Mitchell: “Don’t it always got to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone?”

Wider Connections

Donald Fisher—CAMP

Presidio Board; Presidio Trust contact

MOMA Board contact

Letters to the Editor, Chronicle

Kenneth Baker visits the collection (video)

3 Responses to “deCAMPed: Will SF Say Goodbye to the Fisher Collection?”

  1. I put a post up about this on my blog and on the Examiner web site where I now post on art and art related matters.


    • Nancy
      Well, this topic has generated a lot of discussion. Just a couple of comments on your article:

      First, your mis/distrust of developers may be well-placed, but I urge you to look at the Presidio Trust’s long-range plan. Anything that is done at the Presidio must be vetted environmentally and historically in a public process. if Fisher couldn’t get his museum through the process, I would guess that condo-developers won’t either.

      Second, many museums may operate on their endowments, but what’s wrong with that? That money usually comes from the wealthy in the community, not from taxpayers. It’s a slippery slope to start decrying unprofitable museums. Should we eliminate all unprofitable opera, ballet, symphony, dance troupes as well? What about libraries?

      Third, according to my reading of the Presidio Trust Management Plan documents, I’m not exactly sure how one can argue convincingly that CAMP “violated” the terms of either the National Park or Trust’s mandates. I covered this in detail in VR post, Evolving Uses of the Presidio.

      Fourth, I don’t know what constitutes a “huge” footprint where cultural buildings are concerned, but the new design put 60% of the 70,000 feet underground (or 42,000 ft), and the remaining footage was no higher than 30 feet off the ground.

      And finally,not sure you meant to, but the way you worded your sentence it implies that Don Fisher was responsible for all buildings at Main Post. He wasn’t. Presidio Trust responsible for others.

      Look forward to continued debate on this topic!

  2. Apparently Fisher’s plan failed to pass several types of reviews; what I objected to was CW Nevis’ implication that it was shot down by a group of elite SF NIMBY types. I have no problem with museums operating on their endowments. In fact, unlike Kenneth Baker, I understand why museums, whose funds have taken huge hit since the market hit free fall, are turning to revenue producing projects like the current blockbuster at the de Young. You’ve read something into my article that wasn’t there. But it was unclear to me – and obviously to a lot of other people – if his “endowment” would be enough to cover not only the museum but all the attendant expenses, as in new bus routes, possible a huge parking lot, etc. What you see on paper – a nice, clean, small footprint building – could go so wrong in so many different ways. If the ultimate outcome of this is that the collection ends up at SF MOMA or in somewhere south of Market, then we all will have won.

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