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Fisher Collection’s Saga Demonstrates Perils of Single-Collector Museum

SFMOMA trustee Bob Fisher, son of Doris and Donald Fisher, who are pictured on screen behind him

After Neal Benezra, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the second happiest person about the relocation of the 1,100-work Donald and Doris Fisher Collection to SFMOMA may be one of the Fishers’ sons, Bob.

That’s because the creation of a trust to lend the blue-chip contemporary collection to SFMOMA for at least 100 years relieves Bob, his brothers and, ultimately, their children of the heavy responsibility for maintaining the single-collector museum that was Donald Fisher’s dream but his heirs’ possible nightmare.

When I chatted with him at SFMOMA’s New York press lunch yesterday, Bob made it clear to me that getting saddled with being the future caretaker of a museum that his father had unsuccessfully sought to establish for his collection on the national park land of San Francisco’s Presidio had not been a prospect that either he or his brothers had relished.

The museum is planning to expand to the site it has just acquired, which is currently occupied by a firehouse (which will be moved). It has winnowed down to eight a list of about 25-30 architects, and expects to announce a shorter shortlist very soon, director Neal Benezra told me yesterday. Priorities, he said, will be “beautiful galleries” and a more welcoming aspect than the formidable façade of the current Mario Botta building.

Another generation of Fishers will have to decide whether the collection will remain at SFMOMA after the 100 years of the agreement. The works could not be sold for personal gain, Bob Fisher said, but could theoretically be liquidated to fund other purposes of the trust. Showing he was well aware of the possible pitfalls, he cited the Barnes Foundation as an example of the future problems that trusts can experience.

The problem of sustainability of single-collector museums after their founders’ death is an issue that I discussed in my 2004 Wall Street Journal piece, Endangered Species. The administrative crises (discussed in that article) that roiled the Barnes Foundation (now relocating from Merion to Philadelphia), the now defunct Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago, and the Menil Foundation in Houston (now on a more even keel) are all cautionary tales.

That’s not to disparage single-collector museums. Where would we be without the Frick, the Morgan, the Getty—all of which became much more than mere mausoleums for their founders’ troves? But the financial underpinning and the administrative foundation must be solid, and the planning sufficiently foresighted to give the institution a chance to thrive in the post-founder era.

Speaking of sustainability, my warm thanks go out to CultureGrrl Donor 126 from Rome, GA.

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