Debate over proposed Presidio museum

July 4, 2008 9:12:23 PM PDT
San Francisco's historic Presidio is slated for change, big change as it transforms from former military post to national park. The plans don't please everybody, especially the proposal for a new museum.

It's a world class art collection, worth perhaps a billion dollars representing a who's who in contemporary art. Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Richard Serra, Alexander Calder - are just some of the major players. All the works belong to Donald and Doris Fisher, founders of the Gap.

Few people have seen the art up close. Most is inside private galleries at the Gap headquarters in downtown San Francisco. Now the Fishers want to build a museum in the Presidio. They would pay for it and donate their treasure trove.

"We collect artists in depth, which is quite different from the way most collectors collect," said Doris Fisher, art collector.

"This is breathtaking art and why shouldn't kids from Bayview Hunters Point and the Mission, why shouldn't seniors from the Western Addition and Viz Valley get opportunities to have access to such a wonderful cultural institution?" said Alex Tourk, Fisher spokesperson.

The Fishers made their announcement with much fanfare last August. But between then and now, questions have surfaced about the size of the museum - 100,000 square feet and the appropriateness of the location right in the heart of the Presidio - where the bowling alley is now.

"I say it would suffocate the presentation of history. This would be so dominate a building," said Redmond Kernan, Presidio Historical Association.

Kernan is an expert on this birthplace of San Francisco - where the city was founded more than 200 years ago.

The Army left in 1994 when the military post was decommissioned.

"It has got a new mission. We need to celebrate the history. We need to venerate those who served here, but were making it into a park," said Craig Middleton, executive director of the Presidio Trust.

The trust is in charge of the park's redevelopment. Donald Fisher was a founding board member. But Middleton says that's not why his museum proposal has been endorsed.

"What this really is - is a person of means who has collected an incredible collection, trying to make it available to the public. I don't know what's wrong with that," said Middleton.

The other proposal presented to the trust for the same site was a history center suggested by the Presidio Historical Association.

"We admittedly didn't have a checkbook to go with our proposal as Mr. Fisher did," said Kernan.

Congress is requiring the park to become financially self sufficient by 2013. The trust is now conducting tours to show the public the plans, which include a nearly 90,000 square foot hotel and the expansion of an existing movie theater. Some neighborhood groups aren't happy about the thought of all that increased traffic.

"All the buildings together that are contemplated would be the equivalent of new construction of three football fields - that's a heavy load," said David Bancroft, Cow Hollow Association.

There are two influential agencies involved in the process. The National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation are both concerned that the large scale of the entire project could cause the Presidio to lose its designation as a national historic landmark - an honor its held since 1962.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is particularly harsh regarding the art museum sending the presidio board a letter calling the plan "grossly inappropriate. Still supporters are hoping to sway public opinion. Tours of the art collection are being held for movers and shakers in the community. It worked for Livia Stein.

"As a painter my immediate reaction was oh this collection is an excellent collection and it really needs a real building and really good light. And the artist kicked in over the environmentalist," said Livia Stein, museum supporter.

What do you think about the museum, hotel and movie theater? The Presidio trust has a board meeting open to the public on July 14th.

The Presidio Trust is also taking written public comment at least through the end of this month.


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