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View Count: 100 |  Publish Date: April 01, 2014
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Weisel foundation gives American Indian art to S.F. museums

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco have received from the Thomas W. Weisel Family Art Foundation a gift of 200-plus American Indian artifacts, a major enhancement to the institutions department of Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas.
The gift includes classic examples of Southwest textiles dating to the early 19th century and prized ceramics more than 1,000 years old.
Neither the benefactor nor the institution would put a dollar figure on the gift, but significant American Indian objects sold at auction in recent years have fetched six- and even seven-figure prices, so the value of the donation - which includes an unspecified endowment for the collections conservation and research - would surely be reckoned in millions.
The Fine Arts Museums will celebrate the gift with an exhibition of approximately a third of the cache. Titled Lines on the Horizon: Native American Art from the Weisel Family Collection, it will open at the de Young Museum on May 3.
What I realized when I first saw Thoms collection and we started talking about a gift, said Matthew Robb, FAMSF curator of the Arts of the Americas, was that it really locked in a West Coast story line. Theres a little bit of Northwest Coast material in the collection, and well be adding to that. The historic collection of California baskets we already have goes all the way back. This core collection of Southwestern material, both 19th and 20th century now, just gives us a great story to tell.Keeping collection in S.F.
Asked why he began collecting American Indian artifacts, Weisel, who has also collected postwar American art, said, pointing to a rare first phase chiefs blanket, Look at this in relation to a painter such as Barnett Newman - very simple, just a few lines - this is like an amazing painting, but made by a woman weaving on a loom on the Great Plains, outside.
Weisel, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who also funded Lance Armstrongs cycling team that was involved in the big doping scandal, said that it matters to him for a number of reasons to keep his collection in San Francisco.
There are a number of other collectors who are looking for homes for their collections of American Indian arts, he said, and the fact that weve got this resource now might be an added attraction, beside what the museum already provides.
For me everything lined up, having resources like these curators - meaning Robb and textiles curator Jill dAlessandro - the building, and the fact that this is an encyclopedic museum. Not every museum has in its mission statement that it will collect the arts of the Americas.
Weisel began collecting American Indian artifacts decades ago, he said, with the encouragement and guidance of Southern California artist Tony Berlant, author of two of the first definitive books on the subject.
Back in the 1960s, he was buying things like this for $200, Weisel said of the chiefs blanket. Hed bring a satchel full of them to New York and sell them to Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, all these artists that he knew.
Now the best material has grown very scarce and valuable. Robb especially prizes the Mimbres ceramics Weisel is giving.Seeking out meaning
Mimbres material is the high water mark in my view. Robb said, in the ancient arts of the Southwest, particularly in this figurative style from about the 11th century A.D. It was a very local tradition, specific to one part of New Mexico. Many of Thoms pieces have a long history in publications. Ive always been fascinated by the connections between these designs and things in other parts of the collection, the Mesoamerican particularly.
Were dealing with civilizations that didnt have writing systems, so we dont know what these figures mean. All we can do is put as many of these objects together as we can and try to trace out patterns and the potential for meaning.
Kenneth Baker is The San Francisco Chronicles art critic. E-mail: kennethbaker@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @kennethbakersf

Time: 2:17  |  News Code: 390797  |  Site: San Francisco Chronicle
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