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Gap Founders Donate Major Art Collection to SFMOMA

Gap Inc. founders Don and Doris Fisher’s donate their 1,100-piece art collection to SFMOMA.

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These are heady times for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary while raising $480 million to triple gallery space.

But trumping it all: being propelled into the ranks of contemporary art’s heavy hitters such as New York’s MoMA and London’s Tate Modern by virtue of Gap Inc. founders Don and Doris Fisher’s gift of their 1,100-piece art collection, acquired over 40 years as they built a global retail business based in San Francisco.

“Having the Fisher Collection means the museum is on the international art map. It’s a great coup,” says Norah Sharpe Stone, a museum trustee who is overseeing SFMOMA’s 75th birthday bash. The May 14 party will be in the existing museum, opened in 1995 and designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta, whose selection the late Don Fisher participated in as a museum trustee.

The Fishers’ SFMOMA philanthropy — in the form of a partnership — follows generations of wealthy local modern art collectors to support the museum since its start in 1935 in the War Memorial Veterans Building, where, in 1945, abstract painter Jackson Pollock had his first solo museum show.

Bit by bit, the collection has grown in size and importance, like with the 1990 bequest of 33 early modernist works from Elise S. Haas, widow of former Levi-Strauss chief executive officer Walter A. Haas Sr. The Haas collection includes Matisse’s 1905 masterpiece “Femme au Chapeau.”

“The museum is full of treasures,” says Gary Garrels, SFMOMA’s senior curator of painting and sculpture, naming Robert Rauschenberg’s 1953 “Erased de Kooning Drawing” as among the museum’s 20th-century contemporary masterpieces, one of many gifts from the late trustee and construction heiress Phyllis Wattis.

SFMOMA’s current board of trustees is steered by chairman Charles R. “Chuck” Schwab, founder of the namesake brokerage house and an art collector in his own right with his wife, Helen. Schwab, with whom the Fishers in 1999 bought 19 early Ellsworth Kelly paintings to share — and gave SFMOMA a one-third stake — is overseeing fund-raising for the museum’s new wing.

In a display of SFMOMA’s seriousness about its new stature in the art world, anonymous donors already have pledged $250 million in a matching grant toward the $480 million needed for the new wing and increased endowment. Likewise, the tab for the 75th anniversary party already has been paid by an unnamed donor, allowing income from attendance to go to the museum.

With dinner capacity in the fifth-floor gallery increased to 600 from 500, the event is expected to attract a who’s who of the international contemporary art world, who should take note that hostess Sharpe Stone has tossed out any notion of a dress code, asking guests to instead “surprise us.”

“The party is about creativity. It’s not about extravagant displays of flowers,” says Sharpe Stone, an exuberant contemporary art collector with her husband and fellow SFMOMA trustee, Norman C. Stone, whose acclaimed collection fills their Pacific Heights mansion and art cave at their Napa winery. As for what the Stones will wear to the party, she expects to build a wardrobe around a Dolce & Gabbana samurai jacket and he may wear painted Martin Margiela pants.

The 75th SFMOMA bash is also a warm-up for the following month’s first public view of the Fishers’ art in the exhibit “Calder to Warhol: Introducing the Fisher Collection,” which runs June 25 to Sept. 19.

The Fishers, who first considered building their own museum for their art, began their collection with sets of prints to dress up Gap’s offices. Much of the collection is now stored in a 20,000-square-foot private gallery at company headquarters on the Embarcadero, where a 60-foot bronze “Charlie Brown” by minimalist sculptor Richard Serra towers in the lobby.

“The Fishers collected artists they admired and collected them in depth. You could teach a whole seminar on Roy Lichtenstein or Ellsworth Kelly from the collection. The Calders are world class. They have almost all the contemporary blue-chip artists,” says Hilarie Faberman, curator of modern and contemporary art with the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.

Eschewing a personal curator to guide their acquisitions, the Fishers enjoyed the hunt, like when they rented a boat during the Venice Biennale to get a closer look at wooden sculptures by Mark di Suvero displayed along the Grand Canal, before committing to buy one.

Once in Paris, while art browsing alone, Doris Fisher came upon a room full of Louise Bourgeois’ oversize “Spider” sculptures at the Musée d’Art Moderne and called her husband, who was in Switzerland for the day.

“I told Doris that I wanted to see them and buy one,” Don Fisher stated in a privately published two-volume catalogue of the couple’s art, about that night’s mission. “Well, I don’t speak French, it was after 6 o’clock at night and the [museum] door was locked. I banged on the door and rang the doorbell, and then talked my way into the museum.”

The Fishers most prolifically collected Calder, acquiring 38 works, including “Constellation,” originally commissioned in 1943 by Philip Johnson, New York MoMA’s first director of architecture. As a teenager, Calder briefly lived in San Francisco (his father was head of sculpture at the city’s 1915 Pan Pacific Exposition) and attended Lowell High School, where Fisher later studied.

“Don Fisher was enamored with Calder,” says Madeleine Grynsztejn, director of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and former SFMOMA curator, who recalls how the executive liked to ask visitors to his office whether they recognized a wooden table sculpture as a Calder.

Other highlights from the upcoming Fisher exhibit include two galleries of early and late paintings by Andy Warhol, such as the iconic “Triple Elvis,” “Silver Marlon” and “Nine Multicolored Marilyns.” Two galleries will be devoted to Chuck Close — another Fisher favorite, and among the artists with whom the couple became friends.

Additionally, half of one floor will be devoted to Pop and figurative art, including Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg. Other artists in the lineup include Philip Guston, Anselm Kiefer, Agnes Martin, Gerhard Richter, Richard Serra, Cy Twombly, Wayne Thiebaud, Sam Francis, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Willem de Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn and Brice Marden.

“What holds the collection together is Don’s appreciation and excitement for bold, graphic work. He loved color, the texture, the sensuality of the art,” says curator Garrels. “Don had a great range of tastes and interests. He liked pared-back, geometric abstract art. He loved gestural painting.”

Not surprisingly for a fashion entrepreneur, Fisher, who died Sept. 27, also described himself as visually oriented. “I remember more things visually than in any other way,” wrote Fisher, an early collector of video art, like that of South African William Kentridge.

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