As you're likely well aware by now, the newly reopened SFMOMA now has more than half of its expanded gallery space devoted to paintings and sculptures that are part of the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection a hugely valuable group of 20th Century artwork amassed by the Gap founder and his co-founder wife over several decades, and now on loan to the museum for 100 years. The entirety of the fourth, fifth, and sixth floors of the new part of the museum are now the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection Galleries, and some critics have already been quick to point out that the Fishers' taste, which now dominates the museum, tends heavily toward white, male artists, and they had a particular interest in the artists Ellsworth Kelly, Chuck Close, Andy Warhol, Willem deKooning, and German artists Gerhard Richter and Ansel Kiefer.
Now Chronicle art critic Charles Desmarais "unravels" for us a few of the heretofore unpublicized stipulations in the loan agreement between the museum and the Fishers, which include the requirement that, going forward, those Fisher galleries on three floors of the museum never display more than 25 percent works from other lenders or donors meaning that curators for the next century will be slightly hamstrung in the use of these large galleries when it comes to trying to balance the taste of the Fishers with works by a more diverse group of artists.
Also, Desmarais finds that "works are being transferred at the Fishers’ discretion, in due course, over time," and what is on view now is primarily what belongs to the Fisher Art Foundation, which is only a fraction of what belongs to Doris Fisher personally. SFMOMA director Neil Benezra tells the paper, "If Doris has loaned a picture from her home, she might like to have it back, and we would certainly give it back to her at the end of some period of time," suggesting that in curating these galleries in their current form, Benezra and his team have had to request art that had not yet transferred to the foundation, after which the family can no longer have private use of it. (Apparently only five of the 260 pieces currently on view came from Doris's private home.)
Fisher is now 85 (Donald Fisher died in 2009), and her son Robert J. Fisher currently serves as president of the SFMOMA board. It remains to be seen how the remainder of the collection may get divided among the heirs after her death, or what works remain to be seen among the 835 more that were reportedly part of the 100-year loan deal with the museum.
None of this is too out of the ordinary, as Desmarais writes, among art institutions, except for the fact that it marks a major shift for SFMOMA's priorities that the public may not yet fully understand.
Single donor-focused museums and galleries have existed for a long time. In the U.S., one thinks of great museums like Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania, New York’s Frick Collection, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Robert Lehman Collection. All are tightly restricted with respect to what is shown, loaned and borrowed, and even how their works are displayed.
These institutions and subcollections present themselves clearly as the vanity productions they are even as they reveal to us essential aspects of our cultural past. When we visit them, we know that we are seeing art through a particular lens. SFMOMA has yet to be that transparent about its presentation of the Fisher collection.
Still, the museum has all of its old galleries on the third, fourth, and fifth floor, as well as the contemporary art galleries on the seventh floor that it can do whatever it likes with, but with a desire to balance all those 20th century paintings with photography, design, multimedia work and works by women and artists of color, the museum will certainly have use these other galleries judiciously going forward to satisfy Bay Area audiences and remain relevant.