What Deal Did SFMOMA Make to Land the Fisher Collection?

Originally, the "Fisher Wing" was deemed too lofty.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Henrik Kam. Courtesy of SFMOMA.

In a lengthy, detailed article in the San Francisco Chronicle, art critic Charles Desmarais attempts to delve into the details of what type of deal the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art struck with the late billionaire and major contemporary art collector Donald Fisher and his family in order to secure their stellar collection of contemporary art.

Donald Fisher. Courtesy of SFMoMA.

Donald Fisher. Courtesy of SFMoMA.

Fisher, who founded the Gap clothing empire, originally came to the museum with a pitch for a gift in 2005, but the museum’s director, Neal Benezra thought the associated stipulations included a “Fisher Wing” were too lofty.

But after Fisher and his wife, Doris, were unsuccessful in building their own museum in the Presidio, the offer of their collection eventually came back to SFMOMA.

Before Donald Fisher died in 2009, “a new deal was struck,” Desmarais reports, and the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection galleries were included after all.

Desmarais asks what the 2009 arrangement entailed, acknowledging: “The short answer is we don’t know.”

Among the facts he supposedly “dislodged” from the museum:

A grouping of Fisher collection works must hang together in the galleries once every ten years.

A trust was to be created and co-administered to oversee care of the collection for a minimum of 25 years. Later it was announced the deal had expanded to a period of one hundred years, with the option to renew. (The loan term ends in 2116.)

Most of the art belongs to Doris Fisher alone, and the museum’s partnership is with an entity called the Fisher Art Foundation.

A 2013 federal income tax filing lists Fisher and her three sons, including Bob, who is president of SFMOMA’s board, as the foundation’s only trustees (Bob Fisher declined Desmarais’ request for an interview for the story). The filing lists assets of $15.6 million, “a paltry fraction of a collection that contains single works worth that and more,” writes Desmarais.

Of 260 works on view, only five are still privately held and are scheduled to be returned. But SFMOMA refuses to say what is in the collection beyond the 260 objects or how many of the other 835 pieces belong to Doris Fisher.

In the Fisher Collection galleries, no more than 25 percent of what is on view can come from other lenders or donors.

Desmarais brings up other “single-donor focused museums and galleries” to show their tight restrictions, including the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Barnes Foundation, and the Frick Collection.

“When we visit them, we know that we are seeing art through a particular lens,” he writes, concluding that SFMOMA has “yet to be that transparent.”

artnet News reached out to SFMOMA for comment but did not receive an immediate response.

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