Stroke of luck brings exhibit of 100-plus Chagall works to S.F.

For Janet Bishop and Ruth Berson, curating this summer's Marc Chagall exhibit at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was not just fortuitous. It was serendipity. It was meant to be. It was fate.

In her office in SFMOMA's Third Street building, Berson, deputy director for programs and collections, paints this picture of how the July 2003 show came to fruition:

It's April 2002. Paris. A man and a woman sit in a restaurant. The man is Thierry d'Allant. The woman is Chagall's great-niece, Aline Zelter. She says she wants an exhibition of the Jewish early modernist painter to come to the United States. He says he's married a director at SFMOMA. A partnership is born.

When Berson, then the museum's director of exhibitions, heard the news she was in total shock. "We've never had a chance to work with museums in France," said Berson, who was recently named deputy director for programs and collection. Not only that, she said, but the museum was actively looking for a good show to fill its summer slot. Then the Chagall retrospective fell into her lap.

Though the museum sees this as a rare and special opportunity, curating a show of this magnitude — a major retrospective of a well-known artist — in just 15 months produced a serious time crunch. "We tend to work three, five, seven years out for a project like this," Berson said.

"We've been working under a great deal of pressure," said Bishop, host curator for the exhibit of Chagall, who addresses traditional Jewish themes, employing colorful and often whimsical folkloric imagery, in much of his work.

Fortunately, this is not foreign territory. The museum puts on 30 to 50 exhibits a year. It's what the museum business is all about. Berson and Bishop, both San Francisco residents, gathered a team of more than 50 very excited SFMOMA employees and quickly got to work. "We've got a pretty smoothly oiled machine here," Berson said.

SFMOMA isn't the only place to exhibit Chagall's works this summer. The Weinstein Gallery near Union Square in San Francisco will host a "comprehensive exhibit" of Chagall's works between July 25 and Aug. 25.

The SFMOMA exhibit was originally organized by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux in Paris, and the Chagall Museum in Nice. Most of the 100 or more paintings spanning Chagall's long career (1910-1983) were exhibited in Paris in March and then will be shipped to San Francisco.

That makes curating the show easier, said Bishop, who brought Yoko Ono's "Yes" exhibit to the museum last spring.

"They've done the lion's share of the work," Berson said. Some of the paintings have never been seen before in the United States, and Berson said the museum is "very honored to be the only place outside Paris to put on the exhibition."

The Chagall show is considered a large-scale project, costing more than $1 million to produce. Bishop, Berson and the team rely on a lot of coordination as they work on fund-raising, securing loans and insuring the paintings, many of which are owned by private individuals who are not so eager to part with them. Many of the owners will accompany their paintings from France to San Francisco as couriers. Logistics of shipping are being worked out, and a model of the gallery is being built so Bishop can design how she wants to display the paintings. Works must also get copyrighted so the museum can reproduce them in a book it will publish on the exhibit.

Even the museum's visitor services department and gift shop get involved in the planning process.

"It's very expensive," Berson said. "You can't do this too often."

Not only was Berson and her team excited about the opportunity to have this exhibit, "which was never meant to travel," but it marks the first major Chagall exhibit in the United States since the mid-1980s. It's indicative of SFMOMA's growing stature nationally and abroad.

"Chagall has an important place in how we want to promote ourselves," Berson said.

Attendance is expected to be high. The exhibit will open during San Francisco's peak tourism period, on July 26, and aims to appeal to children and adults with educational and interactive aspects. Not only are exhibits of paintings very popular in general, because Chagall's name is so well-known, Berson and Bishop expect many to be drawn into the museum for the first time.

The curator also expects a large Jewish turnout. "This will be a terrific opportunity to see much of Chagall's work for the Jewish theater," Bishop said.

"One sees in Chagall's work very definite interests in Jewish themes. But his work transcends narrow classification.

"He's an artist who is hugely known…but not completely understood."

Chagall was never linked to a particular movement. He was inspired by the cubists and surrealists of the early 1900s in France and Russia, but he always maintained his own style. "He has his own place in European modernism," said Bishop, who has been at SFMOMA for 12 years. She said his universal themes create a wider appeal as well.

"It gets personal," Berson said.

The painter was born into a poor, Chassidic family in Vitebsk, now in Belarus, and, as a young artist, created work for the Jewish Theater in Moscow. The centerpiece of the exhibit will be a large set Chagall painted for that theater.

Chagall's family in France is excited to have this show travel to San Francisco, said Berson. They have helped the museum secure loans and copyrights to images.

"They wanted to become involved with the project in a spiritual way," she said. "They want to keep their great-uncle's name alive and out there."

Shoshana Hebshi
Shoshana Hebshi

Shoshana Hebshi is a freelance writer and former J. copy editor living in the North Bay.