Examiner Editorial: He was a hero to our city’s arts and civic culture

San Francisco lost Donald G. Fisher to cancer on Sunday. The 81-year-old was the co-founder of the 3,100-store Gap Inc. casual-clothing empire and a remarkable philanthropist, education reformer and art collector. He died quietly at home only two days after the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art announced a partnership with the Fisher family that will keep one of the world’s finest privately owned, 20th-century art collections here.

To house Fisher’s collection of 1,100 works by Warhol, Lichtenstein, de Kooning and many other modern masters, SFMOMA will spend $60 million to build a 100,000-square-foot wing that triples its gallery space and makes it one of the world’s greatest museums.

The SFMOMA-Fisher partnership makes for an appropriate finale to Fisher’s productive life. It ensures that his name remains enshrined among the great public benefactors of art.

Yet, the scope of his irreplaceable art collection is only one of Don’s major accomplishments.

With no prior retail experience, the 41-year-old real estate man decided to open a jeans store in 1969 because he couldn’t find a pair that fit right. Don and his wife, Doris — his partner in business and public service — borrowed $63,000 and eventually built Gap Inc. into a business with 134,000 employees in 25 countries and $14.5 billion in sales in fiscal year 2008.

The Fishers pioneered the now-universal concept of bringing fashion to basic, casual clothing. They named their company for the “generation gap” and through the years they fine-tuned and expanded it into Banana Republic and Old Navy.

Meanwhile, these lifelong San Franciscans continually gave back to their community. Gap became a publicly traded corporation in 1976, seven years after it began. And one year later, the Gap Foundation was formed to help underserved communities. Fisher served on the boards and contributed generously to United Way, Teach for America and numerous other worthy causes.

But his most passionate civic goal was to help improve American education. Fisher was a longtime backer of Edison Schools, which contracted to operate troubled schools for local districts.

In 2000, he switched his efforts to the nonprofit KIPP and reportedly donated $60 million to expand it from two to 82 free, open-enrollment charter schools in low-income communities.

Throughout all this, Don and Doris were collecting hundreds of the finest artworks created since World War II. They discovered important artists early and stuck with them, assembling so many paintings that most had to be stored on sliding racks at Gap headquarters.

It was a deep frustration to him that San Francisco’s NIMBY troops nitpicked to death his benevolent offer to build The City an art museum in the Presidio.

But all has ended well, as Don Fisher lived to see his irreplaceable collection find a perfect San Francisco home.

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