September 5, 2006

San Francisco's art collection: lost, strayed or stolen

This Associated Press article by Ron Harris appeared in When I was Project Manager for the Hearts in San Francisco project I had the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation donate some startup funds to the San Francisco Arts Commission to start working on cataloging and improving the storage of the Civic Art Collection housed at the San Francisco General Hospital. This article is about the current situation. It is very good to see that they are speaking openly about the state of this collection.

The Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera paintings that I had restored and loaned to the Museo de Frida Kahlo in 2005 are also at the San Francisco General Hospital but are not part of this civic collection.

Here's the article:

For a city boasting Rodins and Munchs in its public collection, the basement of Building 30 at San Francisco General Hospital is no place for art. Steam pipes lattice the ceiling and the dust on rusting file cabinets appears years thick.
San Francisco owns more than 3,000 pieces of art, acquired mainly through commissions and gifts and valued at about $30 million. But decades of poor record-keeping and other factors have landed work by noted artists here.
"It's dirty. It's hot. It's moist. There's steam," said Carol Marie Daniels, a project manager for San Francisco's civic art collection who has spent more than a year sifting through the hospital basement and similar places for the city's lost and misplaced art.

"These windows don't even have glass on them so when it rains water can pool in here," she said. "There's rat droppings all over."

The city has hired art technician Brian Boeddeker to help Daniels inventory the collection and rescue treasures that have fallen into disrepair. Required physical inspections of art installations haven't been conducted for decades. Now a team of five is playing the dual role of art sleuths and data entry specialists.

Their task is considerable: Of the 3,301 pieces listed on the city's new art database, locations have been entered for just 793. Some items have not yet been inputted from an outdated record-keeping system, while others are just now being rediscovered in dank corners of the city. Of the 793, 318 are listed as being in storage.

"We had an old system of cataloging," said Richard Newirth, director of cultural affairs for the San Francisco Arts Commission.

"We never really had the capacity to keep up with it on an ongoing basis. In fact, we've discovered that some pieces have disappeared."
Among the missing pieces are a painting by the late Jay DeFeo, a two-time National Endowment for the Arts fellowship recipient and highly regarded Bay Area artist.

"It went to a branch library," said Susan Pontious, deputy director of the city's public art program. "That's one we would like to have back. ... Things that are not bolted down go away."

Work by more well-known artists seems to get better treatment. Early prints by Richard Diebenkorn are safely installed in a meeting room at the art commission offices. And Wayne Thiebaud's work can be seen at San Francisco International Airport.

One recent weekday at the hospital, Daniels and Boeddeker rediscovered Ray Luazzana's etching "The Last of the Unrealists," and "Nude In Studio," an acrylic by the well-known California artist Joan Brown, stacked like worthless pallets against a dirty wall.

Brown, who died in 1990, won a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship during her lifetime. Today, her posthumous award would be having "Nude In Studio" rescued from a dusty forgotten heap.
"It's heartbreaking," Daniels said, brushing her hand along the dusty frame.