Oppose Don Fisher’s museum

Pub date August 14, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL Not long after the US Army announced it no longer needed the Presidio for a military base, a group of powerful San Francisco business leaders began eyeing what would become the first privatized national park in America. Among the businesses aiming to grab a piece of the immensely valuable real estate were Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Transamerica Corp.; among the individuals was the founder of the Gap, a Republican named Don Fisher.

Fisher helped then–US representative Nancy Pelosi pull off an astonishing feat: she took more than 1,200 acres of land earmarked by federal law as a national park and handed it over to real estate developers (see "Stolen Base," 5/8/96). Fisher, who became one of the first members of the private board that manages the Presidio, was around to help George Lucas build a massive business park on the site — and pick up a $60 million tax break in the process.

Now Fisher, who along with his billions has amassed a pretty impressive collection of contemporary art, wants to build a gigantic private museum right in the heart of the park, at the site of the old post. His plan would drop a 100,000-square-foot Battlestar Galactica on the old parade grounds, wiping out a sizable amount of open space. The museum would be on public land, but he’d run it himself, in his own way, with no public oversight.

This is a terrible idea, and San Franciscans ought to be up in arms about it.

According to reports in the San Francisco Chronicle, Fisher has been looking for some time for a way to display his art collection, and he has talked to people at the existing big museums, the Museum of Modern Art and the de Young. But those talks broke down — in part, we’re told by sources, because Fisher didn’t want the professional curators and museum directors calling any shots. He wanted complete control over the art — control over where it was hung, when it was displayed, who got to see it, etc. The folks who run those cultural institutions are too polite to say so in public, but they don’t generally go for that sort of demand. So Fisher did what billionaires around the country are starting to do: he decided to build his own museum.

That’s his right, of course, and if he’d sought a spot, say, South of Market near SFMOMA, it might not be a bad thing. But the Presidio is entirely the wrong place for this sort of institution.

For starters, there’s no easy way to get there. Transit to the main post at the Presidio is very limited — one Muni line, which runs infrequently. No BART, no light rail — nothing of the sort of access you would want for a major public attraction. Car access is through the crowded Marina neighborhood, and the museum would no doubt build a huge parking garage, meaning the park and the surrounding areas would be inundated with cars. That alone would be a violation of the spirit of all the nation’s parks, which are trying desperately to reduce the number of car visits. There are no other cultural attractions around, so visitor traffic to Fisher’s museum would have no spillover benefits for any other museums.

And he’s talking about a whopper of a structure. There’s no way to gently insert a building that big into the park; it can’t blend in with the existing structures or the natural scenery. It’s just going to stick out like a bloated, gangrenous sore thumb, ruining the view and the historical nature of the area.

The private Presidio Trust has sole discretion over the proposal, but city officials can speak up, loudly. The Board of Supervisors should pass a resolution opposing the museum, the arts community should demand that it be relocated, and the public at large ought to tell the trust and Fisher that his personal memorial edifice isn’t welcome in the park.*