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The Fisher’s Art Collection

“Fools.” A painting called that by Ed Ruscha is presently on display at the newly-reopened San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It is a large canvas on which the word “fools” appears, not messily scrawled in the style of Jean-Michel Basquiat, but in a neat lower case font. As with all modern art, its intent and meaning are hard to pin down. Who are the fools being referred to? Are they the museum goers who paid $25 to come in the museum and look at it on the wall? Or the museum curators who decided to display it so prominently? Or perhaps it refers to whoever spent the money—lots of it, no doubt—to buy it?

"Fools" by Ed Ruscha, courtesy, SFMOMA
"Fools" by Ed Ruscha, courtesy, SFMOMA

Who were these people? The placard next to the painting informs us that “Fools” by Ed Ruscha is a part of the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection. This is the same Fisher family who owns Mendocino Redwood Company. MRC has been in the news lately due to their practice of killing tan oaks in their forests with poison and leaving them standing there dead. A number of people living in Mendocino County strongly object to this practice and will soon be able to express their opposition by voting yes on Measure V in the upcoming elections. Measure V declares trees that intentionally killed and left standing are a public nuisance, which means that the parties who are doing this, i.e., Mendocino Redwood Company, will be liable for damages caused by them.

MRC is spending a lot of money to defeat Measure V. In a May 25, 2016 article for the AVA, Will Parrish estimates their spending at $254,000 as of that date. Their strategy seems to be to generate enough verbiage—referring to this or that study and dropping this or that name—to confuse the issue enough that people will not know what to think. But the answer to the question of why MRC has adopted this policy of poisoning tan oaks is simple: to make more money. They say it is only to encourage the growth of a healthier forest, but what that really means is bigger Douglas firs and redwoods for them to log. Tan oaks have zero market value.

This raises a larger question: what are MRC’s long term financial goals? A Wall Street Journal article from 2000 interspersed with MRC comments that is posted on MRC’s own website supplies some interesting details. The reporter writes: “In 1998 the family of Gap founders David and Doris Fisher diversified part of its roughly $12 billion dollar investment portfolio… For about $230 million, the family bought 350 square miles of timberlands.” This purchase was a hedge against the risk of losing money in their other investments. At this point they had a 34% stake in the Gap, the jeans emporium that was the original source of their fortune, as well as extensive real estate holdings.

Sounds like a good financial move. But there was one little problem. The land they bought had already been heavily logged by its previous owners, the truly rapacious Louisiana-Pacific and Maxxam Corporation. A lot of the saleable Douglas fir and redwood trees were already gone. Thousands and thousands of tan oak trees had sprung up in their place. MRC was forced to cut its estimated yield from 60 million board feet to 40 million board feet and to focus on logging the few older denser forests that were left.

This WSJ article describes some of the protests people staged that were aimed at the Fisher family. Nonetheless, the Fishers did have local supporters, some of whom were very hopeful about the future. “They’ll have tremendous resources, if they are patient enough to wait,” a former forestry official was quoted as saying.

MRC responded by interjecting the comment: “We are patient enough to wait.” But, as those of us in Mendocino County subsequently have found out, they are not that patient. They are not patient enough to wait until the Douglas firs and redwood trees on their land grow taller and leaf out, causing the tan oaks to die naturally from lack of light.

“Fools” reads the painting owned by the Fishers now on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Again the question is: who are these fools? You? Me? The Fisher family? Everyone who is a part of our out-of-control consumer culture?

Add yet another name to this list of potential fools, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art itself. In September 2009, the Fishers officially threw in the towel on their effort to get the City of San Francisco to approve their plans to build their own private art museum at the Presidio. Instead they decided to lend their 1,100 piece collection of modern art to SF MOMA and to donate a large part of the $305 million needed to build a new wing that would house it.

But there was a catch. The museum had to agree that 75% of the works exhibited at all times in the museum had to come from the Fisher collection. Instead of having a private museum for their art collection the Fishers now have a public museum housing it in a snazzy new building designed by a cutting edge architect. And I’ll bet that, unlike the rest of us, they don’t have to pay $25 when they want to go visit it either.

What is the dollar value of the Fisher’s 1,100 piece art collection? The cognoscenti agree that it is one of the finest private collections in the world. The San Francisco Chronicle estimates that it “would be appraised in nine figures.” I’ll count the zeroes for you: that means that it is worth more than $100 million.

I could find no record of what the Ed Ruscha painting “Fools” last sold for. But a work highly similar to one the Fishers own, an Andy Warhol “Triple Elvis,” sold for $81,925,000 in November 2014.

Again, for the arithmetic impaired, that is approximately $82 million. The “Triple Elvis” the Fishers own must be worth a similar sum, which means that the total value of their collection must be much higher than a mere $100 million. You can see the Triple Elvis the Fishers own at SF MOMA now. It is a gigantic silkscreen of three identical images of Elvis taken from a publicity still for a movie showing him dressed in cowboy garb pointing a six gun at the viewer. (The image was printed in various combinations on thirteen canvases that are all now worth millions. This work lacks the speech bubbles found in the paintings of comics characters by Roy Lichtenstein, so we are free to imagine what Elvis might be saying. How about: “Put up your hands, it’s a stick-up.”

"Triple Elvis," Andy Warhol, courtesy, SFMOMA
"Triple Elvis," Andy Warhol, courtesy, SFMOMA

If you multiply my estimated value of the Fishers’ own “Triple Elvis” by three, it is more than what they reputedly paid for 350 square miles of redwood forests in 1998. Three silkscreen Elvises times three is equal in dollar value to millions and millions of trees.

Is this logical? Aren’t redwood trees works of art too, works of art crafted by the forces of nature? No doubt some people consider redwood trees to be more beautiful than any piece of modern art. After the Fishers acquired their version of “Triple Elvis” they were perfectly content to let it just sit there on the wall. In fact, they recently spent a lot of money to create the perfect wall on which to hang it. The redwoods they own, on the other hand, have to earn their keep. They can’t just sit there until they grow tall, tall enough to cause the tan oaks to die out because of lack of sunlight. The tan oaks have to be taken out immediately, letting the redwoods grow bigger as soon as possible so that they can be “selectively logged.”

But, someone might object, a lot of people get the pleasure of viewing “Triple Elvis” at this wonderful redesigned museum. Well, a lot of people are thrilled to encounter redwood trees close up too. If the Fishers displayed some especially magnificent trees in a preserve with public access, people might flock to it. Remember when Joni Mitchell sang about taking all the trees and putting them in a tree museum?

In any case, the inhabitants of Mendocino County definitely should make plans to travel to San Francisco to view the Fisher collection at the new SF MOMA. After all, our County helped pay for it. Besides, all sarcasm aside, the art is marvelous and the new architecture truly awe-inspiring. In addition, if you feel a little homesick for the forests you left behind once you get there, you can always go see a piece of art by Carl Andre the Fishers acquired in 2007.

Called “9th Cedar Corner,” it consists of 45 three foot high 12 inch by 12 inch blocks of wood arranged in a triangle and pushed into a corner. Of course it is disappointing that it is not made of redwood, but of Western red cedar. Why is that, I wonder? Who knows what lay behind the artist’s choice of materials? Maybe redwood was too expensive.

"9th Cedar Corner" by Carl Andre (photo by Kristana Arp)

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