Wealthy art collector’s SF photo museum at risk of rent eviction

A free San Francisco waterfront museum that bills itself as the world’s largest space dedicated to photography faces immediate eviction even as it celebrates its exhibition on its 10th anniversary.

On Friday, the Port of San Francisco gave the private Pilara Family Foundation – the owners of Pier 24 Photography – 30 days to free up its 27,300 square foot space for underpaying its rent for more than two years.

By January, the foundation must hastily relocate an art collection valued in the tens of millions of dollars. Pier 24 Photography claimed to have almost $ 38 million in assets in its 2018 state income tax return.

Former investment banker Andy Pilara, owner of the photography collection, funds the foundation. Contacted by The Chronicle, Pilara said he was surprised and disappointed to receive the notice.

“We have been providing a free cultural venue in San Francisco for over a decade that is inclusive and serving all communities, with an emphasis on school groups,” Pilara said in a statement.

The public can visit the gallery by appointment, and the intention has always been to limit attendance to 30 people every two hours to allow for leisurely contemplation of the 20th and 21st century masterpieces that Pilara has acquired on the free market. It was named one of the top 10 private museums in the country by Artnet News and is essential to San Francisco’s reputation as a photography destination.

“There really isn’t anything like Pier 24 in the United States,” said Jeff Rosenheim, curator in charge of the photography department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. “The exhibits, the program, the belief in the medium and the opportunities it provided to communicate the broader history of the arts in America is undeniable. What they have done is nothing short of a miracle as it is funded entirely by a big-hearted individual.

Annual attendance is around 25,000, compared to 1 million at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. An appointment is required, and the only time the galleries seem crowded is when a school group is there.

The fight with the port stems from the foundation’s two-year refusal to sign a new lease for the warehouse space that exhibits the vast collection of photographs, according to the port. The main sticking point was the new rent of $ 48,321 per month. That’s about $ 18,000 more than what the foundation paid when its lease expired in 2017, according to documents obtained by The Chronicle.

Andy Pilara, seen Friday May 7, 2010 in San Francisco, California, opened the nation’s largest photographic space on Pier 24. His opening exhibit includes 300 prints from his personal collection which he started in 2003.Russell Yip / The Chronicle 2010

“All tenants at the port, including non-profit organizations like the Exploratorium and the city-run navigation center, must pay fair rent,” said Randy Quezada, spokesperson for the port.

Photograph of Pier 24: Visiting the collection is free and open Monday to Friday by appointment only. Pier 24, on the Embarcadero. (415) 512-7424. http://pier24.org

“The Pilara Family Foundation wants special treatment. The port cannot grant them an exception. They just don’t want to pay as agreed in the lease.

As of November 2017, the foundation was receiving just over $ 4,000 per month in rent credits issued by the port – in exchange for $ 11 million in improvements and renovations that Pilaras believes he made to repair Pier 24, including the repair of “dry rot and termite damage.” “

But the credits expired with the rest of the lease in 2017; yet port officials say the foundation refuses to accept the rent adjustment and has significantly underpaid the rent during the lease stalemate.

“At this point, port staff see no way to bridge the gap between the two sides,” said Michael Martin, port real estate manager, in his letter to the foundation. Port officials, the letter said, also plan to sue to recover nearly $ 1.33 million in unpaid rent and late fees.

Quezada called the decision to evict the museum difficult, but “after two years of good faith negotiations, the Pilara Family Foundation essentially stopped paying rent and did not agree to pay fair rent to the community. ‘to come up. We must exercise our right to terminate this lease, ”he said.

Part of Andy Pilara's photography gallery space includes this room, seen on Friday May 7, 2010 in San Francisco, California, where he imagines people talking about photography.  Pilara opened the largest photographic space in the country.  Her opening show consists of 300 prints from her personal collection.
Part of Andy Pilara’s photography gallery space includes this room, seen on Friday May 7, 2010 in San Francisco, California, where he imagines people talking about photography. Pilara opened the largest photographic space in the country. Her opening show consists of 300 prints from her personal collection.Russell Yip / The Chronicle 2010

“The port depends on one-off payments to be able to maintain our parks and open spaces, access to the bay, as well as respond to seismic and sea level rise issues,” he added.

Pilara said a proposal was submitted in November and had not received a response until the notice was delivered on Friday.

“It is important to note that we have continued to pay the rent based on the terms of our original lease,” said Pilara. “This was done with the understanding of the port that any residual rent would be settled upon signing a new lease, which was also explicitly stated in the port’s latest proposal.”

“We hope and expect to reach acceptable terms with the port, so that the museum can remain in San Francisco,” he added in the statement.

Pier 24, which operates with a staff of four, normally only puts on one or two exhibitions per year. In the past, he has dedicated his wall space to sharing the collections of major photography collectors like Bob and Randi Fisher, Nion McEvoy, and Carla Emil and Rich Silverstein.

“What Pier 24 has contributed and will hopefully continue to contribute to the cultural life of San Francisco is world class, unprecedented and extraordinary,” said Neal Benezra, Director of SFMOMA. “I can’t believe this is happening. It would be a disaster for San Francisco to lose Pier 24. ”

Pilara became passionate about documentary photography while attending an exhibition by mid-century documentary filmmaker Diane Arbus at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Pilara went from there around the corner to the Fraenkel Gallery, possibly the country’s premier photography dealer, and initiated the formation of a major collection that did not slow down until he acquired 5 000 images, from sources everywhere, including auctions and online.

The opening show, in 2010, and the 10th anniversary show, were drawn primarily from Pilara funds, which include all of America’s great photographers, from Walker Evans to Garry Winogrand to Weegee.

“Because this is a private space, they can be innovative in the way they display the photographs and the range of work they show,” said Ken Light, Reva and David Logan professor of photojournalism at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. “My students go there and they come back with sparkling eyes after seeing the astonishing array of photographs on display.”

Like many private family foundations, Pilara is the sole benefactor of Pier 24 Photography. It has donated an average of $ 1.78 million to the foundation each year since 2015, according to public tax records. Since the foundation is registered as a 501 (c) (3) non-profit association, Pilara can deduct these contributions from its taxable income.

In 2015, federal officials launched an investigation into Pier 24 Photography and 10 other private museums across the country to determine whether they offered enough public benefits to justify their status as a tax-exempt nonprofit.

So-Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who led the federal investigation, asked museum operators for five years for information about their hours of operation, number of visitors, admission fees and a host of other details on their internal functioning. Hatch said at the time that for private museums in particular, the tax code, which grants relief for charitable contributions, was “ripe for exploitation.”

But Jeffrey Fraenkel, founder and co-owner of the Fraenkel Gallery, argues the museum is a huge asset to the public.

“Andy’s collection is acclaimed internationally,” he said. “What the Pier offers free of charge, not only to visitors to the Bay Area, but visitors from all over the world, is a level of seriousness about the medium’s history that is hard to find anywhere. It would be a tragedy to lose him.

Dominic Fracassa and Sam Whiting are the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] [email protected] Twitter: @dominicfracassa @samwhitingsf

Norma D. Ross