New Mexican Museum to be worth the wait
In 2001, San Francisco artist Peter Rodriguez, who founded the Mexican Museum in a storefront on Folsom Street in 1975, attended the ceremonial groundbreaking for a bold new Mexican Museum at Jessie Square, across from Yerba Buena Gardens, designed by the celebrated Mexican architect Enrique Norten.
That red-stone structure was supposed to put the museum on the map and showcase its splendid collection — some 15,000 works of pre-Columbian, colonial, modern and contemporary works of Mexican and Latino art — housed in modest quarters at Fort Mason since 1982. Then the dot-com boom went bust, and the Mexican Museum, hobbled by stalled fundraising and ineffective leadership, had to scrap the Legorreta plans.
“I knew it was going to happen eventually,” says Rodriguez, who hopes to attend the groundbreaking in July of the 54,000-square-foot, $43 million Mexican Museum at Jessie Square, designed by another major Mexican architect, Enrique Norten.
It will occupy the first four floors of a 43-story condo tower at 706 Mission St. being developed by Millennium Partners and designed by Glenn Rescalvo of the local Handel Architects.
The project includes the renovation and integration of the 1903 Aronson Building at Third and Mission streets, a 10-story Chicago-style brick beauty whose lower four floors will also be given over to the Mexican Museum.
The museum will have its own signature entrance on Jessie Square — adjacent to the Contemporary Jewish Museum and across from St. Patrick’s Church — with a vine-like sculptural metal mural by the Mexico City-based Dutch artist Jan Hendrix wrapping around the glass facade.
“It’s reflective of contemporary Mexican design,” says Mexican Museum board Chairman Andrew Kluger, who joined the museum board five years ago, got the institution’s financial house in order, and is the engine pushing this long-delayed project forward.
Kluger was born in Mexico City, where his father, Sidney, a Columbia University history professor who moved to Mexico in the 1930s and became a prominent publisher, was friends with Mexican artist Diego Rivera and played chess with Leon Trotsky, the exiled Russian revolutionary who lived next door until he was murdered by an ice-pick-wielding Stalinist.
Kluger, who moved to San Francisco at 13 and went to Lowell High and law school at the University of San Francisco, inherited some quality Mexican art from his godfather, actor Edward G. Robinson, including pre-conquest objects and modern paintings by Rufino Tamayo. The former honorary Mexican consul in Honolulu, Kluger plans to give much of his collection to the Mexican Museum, which will have more than eight times as much exhibition space at Yerba Buena.
The museum can show only a small fraction of its holdings at Fort Mason, where it’s showing “La Cocina: The Culinary Treasures of Rosa Covarrubias,” featuring the artist’s collection of traditional Mexican cookware and utensils, and pieces from the permanent collection, including an Expressionist painting by contemporary Cuban artist Nelson Dominguez and a clay figurine from 250 B.C.
Kluger was mesmerized by the collection when he got to know it, particularly the 800 works of Mexican folk art given from the collection of the late Nelson Rockefeller — “It’s tremendous,” he says — and the rich array of textiles. But he was concerned about the lax bookkeeping and other financial matters he found.
“It was a mess,” says Kluger, 63, founder and CEO of the medical technology firm Early Bird Alert and former head of Hawaii Air Ambulance. Audits had not been done regularly, and money from restricted funds had been used for other purposes. The collection had not been fully cataloged, and the museum was not sufficiently secured or insured. He sought advice from John Buchanan, director of San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums, who died in 2011.
“John sat down with me and told me the collection had to be cataloged and insured. He guided me a great deal on how to do this properly.”
Once those things were accomplished, Kluger and his board focused on building a new home at Yerba Buena. The city, which owns the land, made good on its commitment to provide $14 million for the construction of the museum interior, which the city will own, and the architects’ fees. As part of its deal with the city, Millennium Partners will build the museum shell, estimated at about $30 million.
The developer is also giving $5 million to the museum’s endowment fund.
“We think it’s a great project,” says P.J. Johnston, spokesman for Millennium, which has surmounted the major planning and other bureaucratic hurdles and expects to win a pending legal challenge from residents of the nearby Four Seasons high-rise over shadows cast by the tower, which is scheduled to open in 2018.
An art-loving San Francisco family, anonymous at this point, is giving $5 million to the capital campaign, for the lobby. Rockefeller’s daughter Ann Rockefeller Roberts, a museum trustee, is heading up a $3 million drive for the gallery named for her father. Rivera’s daughter Guadalupe Rivera Marin is doing the same for a gallery named for him, and actor Edward James Olmos is helping raise $250,000 for a multimedia education center bearing his name. Community members of more modest means can give a buck a day for a year, or $365, to have their names inscribed on a wall.
“There have been a lot of egos, people who talked a good line,” Kluger says, “but they didn’t follow through. I’m not the most popular person in town, I’m sure, but I ask for deliverables.”
Norten, whose firm, TEN Arquitectos, has designed many cultural projects, including the Guggenheim Museum in Guadalajara and the Free Library in Philadelphia, says the challenge was to integrate the museum into the tower and the Aronson Building while “distinguishing ourselves from the tower, to create a presence on Jessie Square.”
The museum will have 13 galleries, several of them double-height, an amphitheater, cafe and classrooms. Norten, who speaks about looking to the future and “the new energy of Mexico and the Latino communities in the United States,” designed the galleries to be as open and flexible as possible for the permanent collection and traveling shows. The museum is now affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution.
“We’ve kept them very bare to allow the curators to transform the space according to the spirit of the exhibition,” he says. Architecturally, the new museum draws on a universal modern vocabulary and “ways of understanding light and quality of space that are difficult to express in words. I was born and raised in Mexico, so I hope a little bit of that will be expressed here.”
Jesse Hamlin is a Bay Area writer.