an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

SFMOMA’s Seismic Fisher Fissure: “Integration with the Museum’s Collection”? UPDATED & CLARIFIED

The San Francisco Chronicle‘s Charles Desmarais last weekend blasted the lid off a huge hole in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s description of the strictures governing its 100-year mega-loan of the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection.

CLARIFICATION: I subsequently learned that some of the details that Desmarais “dislodged” (his word) had been published in the NY Times six years ago by Carol Kino. Details here.

In his report on his Fisher fishing expedition—Unraveling SFMOMA’s Deal for the Fisher Collection—the newspaper’s art critic reels in some previously submerged details about the SFMOMA-Fisher arrangement that belie not only what the museum had put out in its official statement regarding the Fisher loan, but also what its press office had written to me, in response to my own repeated queries.

Charles Desmarais' Twitter avatar, @ArtGuy1

Charles Desmarais’ @Artguy1 Twitter photo

Desmarais revealed:

The once-a-decade schedule for showing the [Fisher] collection in what [SFMOMA director Neal] Benezra calls a “monographic” presentation is the tip of a much deeper iceberg. Those huge galleries on the fourth, fifth and sixth floors that carry the Fisher name? Unlike in other spaces designated to honor big donors, which might hold a range of different works and exhibitions, the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection Galleries are required to contain primarily Fisher works at all times.

No more than 25 percent of what is on view may come from other lenders or donors. [Emphasis added.]

Happy visitors to octagonal Agnes Martin gallery (a highlight of the Fisher display) Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Smiling visitors in the octagonal Agnes Martin gallery (a highlight of the Fisher display)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

During my June visit to the expanded SFMOMA and twice after I returned home, I had asked its press office to send me “the complete terms of the Fisher gift, including strictures on when, how and how often the works are to be exhibited.”

On June 30, Clara Hatcher, assistant manager of communications, provided what had then seemed to me an acceptable answer:

The museum will present an exclusive Fisher Collection exhibition every 10 years.  For the other 90 years, the museum will treat the Fisher Collection as it treats its permanent collection, with scholarship, conservation, interpretation, loans to other institutions, and integration with the museum’s collection in exhibitions and displays. [Emphasis added.]

At least my persistence elicited a reply (although incomplete). The museum had “repeatedly avoided or ignored” Desmarais’ requests “for more details, including a look at the loan agreement,” as he recounted in his article.

Like Hatcher’s email to me, SFMOMA’s Doris and Donald Fisher Collection Fact Sheet tells a half-truth:

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has forged a groundbreaking partnership with the Fisher family to share this extraordinary collection with visitors from around the world for 100 years, presenting art from the Fishers’ holdings alongside works from the SFMOMA collection in the expanded museum, creating countless opportunities to reinterpret these works.

SFMOMA is empowered to install, conserve, loan and otherwise treat the Fisher Collection as it would its own collection. [Emphasis added.]

What’s wrong with this picture?

Robert Fisher, SFMOMA's president, at its 2010 New York press lunch Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Robert Fisher, now SFMOMA’s president, at its 2010 New York press lunch detailing the planned loan from his parents’ collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Although I agreed with those critics (such as Peter Plagens in the Wall Street Journal) who rued the museum’s lost opportunity to make connections between its new arrivals and related works in its permanent collection, I considered it to be entirely appropriate to expose and honor the 1,100-work, long-term loan through a temporary, segregated display of some 260 highlights.

Ellsworth Kelly gallery from the Fisher Collection Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Ellsworth Kelly gallery from the Fisher Collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I was less comfortable with the requirement, which subsequently came to light, to mount a segregated Fisher show of a year’s duration every 10 years. But even that I could live with.

But tying SFMOMA’s hands for 100 years and hogging so much of its space (25%, at most, of the three-floor expanse of Fisher-named galleries to be allocated to works from other lenders or donors) is an excessive concession, even if the Fisher trove were a permanent gift, not merely a long-term, renewable loan.

These restrictions, assuming Desmarais’ report is accurate, would turn the new Snøhetta-designed building into a Fisher fiefdom. He does not provide a source for his 25%-allocation revelation. I’m awaiting the museum’s confirmation or clarification about this; if/when I receive a response, I’ll update here.

UPDATE: I have now learned that director Benezra said this in a a recorded conversation with Desmarais:

In the Fisher Collection Galleries—that is to say, the 4th, 5th and 6th floors—on any given floor, 75% of the works must be Fisher works.

SFMOMA's Snøhetta-designed expansion, seen from its sculpture court Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

SFMOMA’s Snøhetta building, as seen from its sculpture court
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

What other collector would want to make major art donations to SFMOMA under these fishy Fisher circumstances? No wonder the museum was reluctant to divulge the full terms of this deal: Its windfall could become its downfall.

In the press release announcing SFMOMA’s inaugural installation of the Fisher Collection, curator Gary Garrels gushed:

I’m thrilled to see how this work complements SFMOMA’s own holdings. [Emphasis added.]

Gary Garrels in his office Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Gary Garrels in his office recently
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

At the moment, that resonance is hard for the average visitor to discern, since the works from the museum’s own collection that “complement” certain Fisher works are currently installed in distant galleries. The second-floor wall text for Pop art from the great Harry and Mary Margaret Anderson Collection notes that related works from the Fisher Collection can be seen on SFMOMA’s fifth floor. (Much more of the Andersons’ collection, which SFMOMA had once coveted, is now installed in their eponymous museum at Stanford University.)

Thanks to Desmarais’ investigative reporting, we now know that even when Garrels and his colleagues are free to sprinkle works from the permanent collection amidst the Fisher holdings, the story that the museum will be able to tell is apt to be fragmented instead of coherent. What seemed worth celebrating appears, upon closer inspection, to be a lose-lose for the museum, its audience and potential benefactors.

an ArtsJournal blog