GAP Founder Wills Contemporary Art Legacy to SFMoMA

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In a sobering follow-up to last week’s announcement that GAP founder and CEO Donald Fisher would donate his entire contemporary art collection to San Francisco’s modern art museum, Fisher died yesterday at age 81 after a protracted battle with cancer. Creating what SF Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker deems “in the league of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Tate Modern in London,” the Donald and Doris Fisher Collection will contribute over 1,100 pieces from masters of 20th and 2st century painting and sculpture.

A former real estate developer, Fisher switched to retail at age 41 after he tried to return a pair of ill-fitting jeans at a local department store. With an initial investment of $63,000, Fisher and his wife came up with the concept for the GAP, in which jeans were “neatly arranged by size in wall cubicles rather than stacked haphazardly on tables.” That little concept store’s revenue peaked at $16.27 billion when Fisher retired in 2004 to focus on philanthropy and collecting art. The Fishers founded the KIPP Foundation, a network of free, open-enrollment college-prep schools, and were active supporters of the Bay Area United Way and Teach for America.

Donald Fisher with “The Sisters” by Brice Marden, part of the vast contemporary art collection recently gifted to SFMoMA.

He also served on the board of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which caused quite a bit of controversy when Fisher started planning an art museum of his own in Presidio, California, a rejected proposal that some speculated might be disheartening enough to move the collection outside of the Bay Area. San Francisco residents may now rest easy, knowing that the Fisher Collection – including blue chip artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Agnes Martin, Cy Twombly, Richard Serra, Chuck Close and William Kentridge – will remain close by for at least 25 years. SFMoMA even reports the addition of a new wing to house the collection; let’s just hope the museum abandons its current faux-Byzantine look for something a little sleeker and, ah, contemporary.

Kenneth Baker relays this amusing anecdote that characterizes Fisher as a complex personality with a keen appreciation for the arts:

When I asked Mr. Fisher to name his favorite piece in the family collection of more than 1,000 objects, I was stunned to hear him single out a relatively recent acquisition: Kentridge’s animated maquette of a stage design for Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” This work, featured in the Kentridge retrospective that began an international tour at SFMOMA in March, has a vivid tenderness that one just does not tend to associate with Republican billionaires.

Fisher standing in front of Seascape, one of Gerhard Richter’s photorealist paintings.