It’s Not All Bad News in California

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Triple Elvis, Andy Warhol, 1962/Doris and Donald Fisher Collection

Triple Elvis, Andy Warhol, 1962/Doris and Donald Fisher Collection

The state of California may be going bust, but things are looking up for two big museums there. In Los Angeles, the beleaguered Museum of Contemporary Art, which seemed on the verge of collapse last year, has picked itself up off the floor, and faster than anyone would have predicted. And further north, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art appears to have scored a very big haul, the contemporary art collection of Gap founder Don Fisher and his wife Doris. I say “appears” because there are strings attached.

Let’s start with MOCA. Last November it was on the brink of collapse. It emerged that the museum had been burning through its endowment for years to cover annual expenses. That endowment, which amounted to about $36.2 million in 2000, had dwindled to $20.4 million by mid-2007, and that was before the crash. When the full scope of the disaster became public, trustees fled, MOCA Director Jeremy Strick stepped down — though he landed on his feet not long after as director of the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas — and for a time it appeared that MOCA might even resort to a merger with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Instead the omnipresent Eli Broad stepped in with a rescue deal and a challenge grant of $30 million. But in the dismal fund raising environment after the Wall Street meltdown, it was not exactly a sure thing that the challenge would be met.

But challenge met. This morning MOCA has announced that its raised $60 million this year — a figure that includes the $30 million from Broad. In the new more encouraging circumstances a couple of disgruntled former trustees have been coaxed back. It probably helped that last December MOCA appointed Charles E. Young as its first ever chief executive with the job of keeping the museum on a sounder footing.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, SFMOMA has emerged as the beneficiary of the Fishers’ inability to establish a private museum for their collection in the Presidio, the national park at the northern tip of San Francisco. Over the summer the Fishers gave up in the face of opposition over the museum’s size, design and location.

It goes without saying — though he would never say so — that SFMOMA Director Neal Benezra was disappointed that for a couple of years it looked like his museum wasn’t going to be getting the Fisher collection, especially since Fisher was and is an SFMOMA board member. So once the Fisher museum plan fell through, like a lot of people I wondered if an arrangement with SFMOMA was the fallback position, and it was. It now appears that their roughly 1100-piece collection, which holds everything from Warhol, Hockney and Ellsworth Kelly to Gerhard Richter and Chuck Close, will be going there, in a fashion, after SFMOMA completes a major expansion.

But it gets complicated. Benezra has called his arrangement with the Fisher’s “a handshake deal” and also described it as a “partnership” with the Fishers, not a gift. As the museum press release puts it:

Upon completion of SFMOMA’s planned expansion, works from the Fisher Collection will be on display in a new wing that will also incorporate art from the museum’s collection. In addition, works from the Fisher Collection will be interwoven with SFMOMA’s modern and contemporary holdings in existing galleries. Together, they will form one of the world’s most important collections of art of the past 50 years. The Fishers will create a trust, administered in collaboration with SFMOMA, to oversee the care of their collection at the museum for a minimum of 25 years.

The details of these complicated loan arrangements with wealthy collectors can get sticky — just ask the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which built its big new Renzo Piano addition in the reasonable expectation it would be getting the Eli Board collection, only to have Broad decide he would keep his art under the control of his own foundation. And there can be questions of curatorial authority. Do SFMOMA curators decide which pieces from the Fisher collection will go on display and in what contexts? Or will it be the Fishers people? And what happens if, after 25 years, they haven’t kept the Fishers happy in those matters? But if the deal works, then SFMOMA, which has been growing its collection steadily over the past two decades, has just fallen face forward into a big pot of honey.

As for that expansion, for years, whenever I asked Benezra if his museum would attempt a new wing of the kind that just about every other major American museum has embarked on over the last decade, he would just smile and say that the museum did happen to own some additional land but that first he wanted to complete the new sculpture terrace that SFMOMA opened on its roof earlier this year. The expansion plan as it’s now envisioned would add 100,000 sq. ft. to the museum, nearly tripling it in size, and cost an estimated $60 million.