S.F. ARTSCENE: THE BIG SCARE : Bay Area Museums Try to Catch Up With 'Vulgar Enemy' Los Angeles

When Zhao Mengfu's "Orchids and Southern Grasses" brought down the gavel at $363,000 last December at Christie's in New York, the early 14th-Century handscroll not only set a world record for a Chinese painting sold at auction, it announced the rebirth of a forgotten competitor.

People in the trade assumed that the agent who called in the winning bid from Hong Kong was representing a high-profile institution, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But this time the Met was the under-bidder, outflanked by none other than the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Avery Brundage Collection.

Like other art museums in San Francisco, the 21-year-old institution hadn't been a viable force in the market and it seemed stagnant. But the Asian Art Museum's big splash at the auction signaled a new push toward change, growth and visibility that has seized visual arts institutions here. Dignified citizens of the tradition-bound city now talk of cultivating a new image, needing better public relations and catching up with Los Angeles, the "vulgar enemy."

"Los Angeles raised the stakes," says John R. Lane, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

"There is no reason San Francisco should settle for second place," argues Harry S. Parker, who on July 1 will become director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, including the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park.

Clarence Shangraw, chief curator at the Asian Art Museum, puts it even more bluntly: "I think Los Angeles scared the hell out of San Francisco, and it's about time."

New blood at the top level of art museums, long-festering dissatisfaction with the city's sluggish support of visual arts (in contrast to the performing arts) and awareness of Los Angeles' stunning growth as an art center have spurred the city into action. To talk to a knowledgeable art observer in San Francisco is to hear that--for better or for worse--a new day is dawning.

Here's the evidence:

All three major art museums have new directors. With a year and a month's tenure at the Asian Art Museum, Rand Castile, 48, is facetiously called "the dean of San Francisco art museum directors." Lane, 42, left the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh last February to direct the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The 47-year-old Parker, immediate past director of the Dallas Museum of Art, announced his Fine Arts Museums appointment just three weeks ago.

Talk of new buildings and expanded facilities is in the wind. The board of the Museum of Modern Art is actively negotiating for the first five floors in an office tower in Yerba Buena Gardens, a proposed mixed-use urban development project near the Mosconi Convention Center. Though the other museums are not about to abandon their park locations--surely among the most beautiful in the world--their leaders are looking into expansion possibilities. Plans to "renegotiate" the space of the Asian Art Museum are underway, according to Shangraw. He also dreams of establishing satellite museums to increase the museum's audience and make more of the 10,000 objects in the collection available.

Growth requires money, but initial efforts to raise it look promising. Board members at the Modern have pledged $25 million toward a new building, "without even being asked" and before an impending capital campaign has been plotted, according to Lane. Though burdened with an $800,000 deficit, the Fine Arts Museums has amassed $26 million in donations and pledges toward a $35-million campaign launched two months ago. The Asian Art Museum is working toward doubling its small $3-million endowment. Amid doubts about the community's ability to finance art museum growth--now that corporate mergers and Southern flight have eroded the city's big business and financial base--Mayor Diane Feinstein has submitted to the Board of Supervisors a budget calling for a 25% increase to visual arts institutions. (The museums receive about a third to half their annual budgets from public coffers.)

As San Franciscans rush to join the museum boom that has spread throughout the country and Europe, they generally say that the city's art museums hadn't slipped over the years; they just hadn't kept pace with growth in other cities and with the performing arts in San Francisco or they haven't promoted themselves properly.

"San Francisco museums have made enormous progress, but they have had a lack of public relations," Parker says, by phone from Dallas.

"The symphony, opera and ballet had high national and international profiles, but one did not sense the same commitment to art museums," Lane says, recalling impressions of the city's cultural life when he was an Easterner, during an interview in his office.

The Modern's major obstacle to growth has been its cramped quarters, on upper floors of the Veterans Building in the War Memorial complex. Lane's predecessor, Henry T. Hopkins, who left the museum to direct the Frederick R. Weisman Foundation in Los Angeles, was widely admired for administering an active exhibition program, but his attempts to expand perpetually ended in failure. Since leaving, he has charged that some board members resisted any kind of change. Other insiders who asked to remain anonymous say the board got a big surprise when it confidently shopped for a new director only to find that top candidates' interest was contingent upon a new building.

Lane, however, insists that the trustees who wooed him were already determined to make a change. Their enthusiasm for the projected Yerba Buena site accounts for their pledges of support, he says, and they are all "feeling so good" about the proposal that they "are not pursuing other options."

Estimating that the move would cost in excess of $40 million, Lane notes that the projected 175,000-square-foot facility would more than double the museum's current space. The development option is held by Olympia and York, the Toronto firm responsible for Battery Park City in New York.

Though detractors worry that the site--on the wrong side of Market Street (at Third Street)--is unsavory, Lane calls it "an incredibly exciting location--bracketed by two Bart stations, 1 1/2 blocks from Union Square and two blocks from the heart of the financial district," in an area targeted for new office, residential and retail space including a Nordstrom store. "I like the notion of the museum's being located between Establishment San Francisco and the South of Market home of alternate spaces, new galleries and artists' studios," he says.

In addition to the Modern's search for a new home, Lane says the museum is seeking a curator for a new department of architecture and design, as well as additional curators of early 20th-Century and contemporary art and a successor to Van Deren Coke, the energetic head of the photography department who recently retired. With a larger staff, Lane hopes to originate more exhibitions and make "the publications program more substantive." As for the collection, Lane says the board finally has added a budget line for acquisitions and intends to encourage collectors "who in the fullness of time will smile on us."

The Asian Art Museum has been well known to professionals as the most comprehensive collection of Asian art outside Asia, amassed over 50 years by Avery Brundage, the longtime president of the International Olympic Committee. But despite its ongoing exhibitions program, it had slipped from public view since the 1976 death of its founder who left no endowment with his fabulous collection. Lodged with the De Young Museum, the Brundage cache was often presumed to be an adjunct to that institution. At the very least, the Asian Art Museum had an identity problem.

That was something Castile knew how to handle. Taking over as director, the former head of the Japan House Gallery in New York set out to turn the Asian Art Museum into a dynamic, highly visible institution. The record-breaking purchase was a spectacular way to do that.

"Major acquisitions bring major headlines," says chief curator Clarence Shangraw, who calls his boss "a master conductor. This is the kind of thing Rand loves to do. What he accomplishes is for the enrichment of the public and it involves people: the curators doing research, other professionals consulted for their opinions, the cooperation of a bidder and the generosity of the donors." (San Francisco collectors Walter and Phyllis Shorenstein actually paid for the Chinese painting and still own it, but they were working with the Asian Art Museum and have put the scroll on display there.)

The purchase that Shangraw calls "a real coup" capped a year that brought the museum 189 new acquisitions. The gift of a rare 15th-16th-Century Korean Buddhist painting followed in January.

Castile, who says he was drawn to San Francisco by the quality of the Asian Art Museum's collection, is working to make it even better and to transform the museum into "a brighter place," to assure people that "it's not a club." He also plans to add curators in Southeast Asian, Korean and Middle Eastern departments.

As the newest new kid in town, Parker defers questions about specific programs as being "premature" but says he intends to "develop the differences" and "bring out the strengths" of the two Fine Arts Museums, such as the "under-recognized" Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts housed at the Legion of Honor. He views that institution as "a Cloisters-type gem on an incredible promontory" and the De Young, in lush Golden Gate Park, as having "greater potential for interaction with the public." Saddled with severe financial problems, Parker told reporters at a press conference that his first order of business is to retire the deficit and take the $35-million campaign to completion.

Financial questions cloud the generally sunny picture of San Francisco's increasing vitality in the visual arts. A recent issue of the San Francisco Examiner's Image magazine, in a cover story on "San Francisco versus Los Angeles: The Great Debate," featured negative comments on the city's economic erosion by Hopkins, Roger Boas, a former chief administrative officer and mayoral candidate, and Michael McGill, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Assn. They blame municipal red tape, an attitude of dedicated insularity, unexpected corporate takeovers and an inevitable shift of the banking center to Los Angeles for San Francisco's decline.

Castile agrees that the slippage is serious. "When Wells Fargo bought Crocker National Bank it did not double its contributions to the arts. There is less activity and that's bad news, but we have to face it," he says.

The standard retort is that small business will take up the slack, a point of view echoed by some museum directors. "The economic demise of San Francisco is probably not true," Lane says. "We need the kinds of business that can make the big gesture, but the city's strength is built on creativity and entrepreneurial activity."

Parker, who cites the Chamber of Commerce as his source, says the city is "an incubator for new small companies" and that the intellectual resources, income and education of the Bay Area are "fabulous."

"The hope is that new, up-and-coming companies like the Gap and Esprit will move into the vacuum, as some of the older San Francisco corporations disappear, and begin making generous contributions to the arts," says Hopkins in the Examiner. "For years, there have been similar hopes about Silicon Valley industry, that it would begin feeding money and energy into the San Francisco arts. But I have my doubts."

Hopkins also recites a recurrent theme on the scarcity of reliable private donors: "If a new group of arts supporters does not emerge, it's going to be bad news for San Francisco."

Predictably, the new crop of museum directors is more sanguine. "People don't give unless you ask them," says Castile, who insists that the circle of benefactors is widening. "If you've got a lot of electricity in the air, people jump in."

San Francisco's new leaders also believe in the "halo effect" of glory. Castile, for example, attributes much of the current interest in art to "tremendous economic growth" in the Orient and to Japanese activity in the art market. If one city or country makes a strong move, "it's a strong move for everybody," he says. "When the Los Angeles County Museum of Art acquired the Joe D. Price collection of Japanese art, it catapulted them to the forefront in that (Edo) period and caused people in San Francisco to sit up and say, 'Holy moly!' "

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