In 2007, Donald Fisher, founder of Gap, offered his enormous contemporary art collection to San Francisco, proposing to build a 100,000-square-foot museum in the historic Presidio. Featuring more than a thousand paintings and sculptures by blue-chip artists, including Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly and Richard Serra, the collection was admired by art experts who had visited Gap’s San Francisco headquarters. But local preservationists were loath to see a boxy modern museum amid the Presidio’s 19th-century army barracks and waged war with Fisher for two years.
The philanthropist surrendered. He withdrew his offer, provoking rumours that his art might go to Oakland, or even St Paul, Minnesota. But billionaire investor Charles Schwab had other ideas. A close friend and business associate of Fisher’s, Schwab was also chairman of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). “I started having many conversations with Don to convince him to bring his collection to SFMOMA,” Schwab recalls. The conversations took on greater urgency as Fisher was coping with terminal cancer. A handshake deal was made just days before his death in September 2009.
Nearly seven years later, as a vastly expanded and reimagined SFMOMA—now the largest modern art museum in the US—reopens its doors, Schwab’s intervention is viewed as a masterstroke. “Don trusted Chuck,” says Neal Benezra, SFMOMA director. “I’m quite certain that Don’s knowing that Chuck was committed to the Fisher collection and the growth of the museum allowed him to have confidence at the end of his life that his collection would be in great hands at SFMOMA.”
Schwab’s commitment to SFMOMA dates back to the 1960s, when he was just getting started in business and the fledgling museum occupied rented space in the War Memorial Veterans Building. “I started visiting with my children,” he says. “Growing up where I did [in Santa Barbara], I hadn’t had much access.” Following his $55 million sale of Charles Schwab & Co to Bank of America in 1983, Schwab had the financial resources to support the museum more directly, and his commitment only became stronger after he orchestrated a management buyback and IPO of his eponymous corporation in 1987. He soon went to work raising funds for a new SFMOMA building, teaming up with Don Fisher (who was already a museum trustee).
Designed by the Swiss architect Mario Botta and located in the South of Market district, the 225,000-square-foot museum opened in 1995. Almost immediately, Schwab and Fisher set out to find great art to fill it. They had a natural rapport, which they had bolstered by serving on each other’s corporate boards. “Our shared quest for contemporary art was an important part of the relationship,” Schwab says. Adventures together included a jaunt to Japan. “We went to buy art from a Japanese bank that had a vault full of art that had been securing debt,” he recalls. “A lot of the art we collected on that trip would go to the museum.”
(This story appears in the 22 July, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)