Libeskind will still design S.F. museum, director says

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Superstar architect Daniel Libeskind is "fully committed" to designing a scaled-back Jewish museum in San Francisco, a museum official said this week.

"He's with the project regardless of what the building budget is," said Connie Wolf, the director and CEO of the Jewish Museum San Francisco.

Tapped in February to design the World Trade Center site, the Polish-born Libeskind visited San Francisco in May and on Saturday reconfirmed his interest in the now-halted local project in a meeting with Wolf in New York, she said.

"He was just steadfast in his ongoing reassurance," said Wolf, who said the revised cost and timetable for building what had once been a $100 million project on Jessie Street have not yet been determined.

Hit by a sputtering economy and a lagging fund-raising campaign, Libeskind's original plans for the highly touted museum have "been put on hold" while officials chart a new course, according to Wolf.

Libeskind's continued support of the project "was important for us to hear," said Wolf.

"Needless to say, he doesn't need this project," she added, referring to the considerable fame Libeskind has garnered from the World Trade Center contract. "But he wants this project."

The child of Holocaust survivors, Libeskind completed the Jewish Museum in Berlin in 1999. His other professional credits include the Imperial War Museum in North Manchester, England, and an addition to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

"He said he probably gets an invitation a day" to design projects, Wolf said. "He is someone who believes in Jewish ideas and Jewish values. He loves the fact that we're a Jewish institution using history to look forward."

Libeskind's fee has not been discussed, according to Wolf. She said that "whatever fee we do discuss with him will be the standard of the industry."

Wolf's comments came shortly after the board of the ill-fated Magnes Museum — a merger of the Jewish museums in Berkeley and San Francisco — voted to sever its 18-month-old relationship. Starting Tuesday, the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley and its San Francisco counterpart will go their separate ways.

The merger had been plagued by financial problems and community criticism.

In contrast to those woes, this past Tuesday's final board gathering "was a very upbeat meeting," Wolf said. "It was incredibly amicable."

Wolf said that as part of the parting pact between the two institutions, specific terms of the separation agreement would remain confidential.

However, she said that $17 million to $18 million had been "committed or pledged" toward the San Francisco site, targeted for a historic PG&E substation near Yerba Buena Gardens.

Wolf said the museum project "will be significantly less" than the $100 million budget originally envisioned. Specific details remain to be worked out.

"We're looking at the whole package," she said in a phone interview. "We really want to take stock of where we are and make the right choices moving forward."

She said the new museum would be devoted to an exploration of contemporary perspectives on Jewish culture and art. The facility would host exhibitions, programs for the public and scholars and educational activities.

As for fund-raising efforts, "we're not rushing out of the gate here," Wolf said. "We're doing this in a way that ensures its success."

For the more immediate future, Wolf said the San Francisco museum planned to open a small exhibit this fall in redesigned gallery space in the Steuart Street building of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

In February, the museum will host a traveling exhibit featuring how 100 American artists of different religious faiths view God. And this summer, the museum is opening a show in the Battery Street offices of featuring the work of local Jewish artists.

Wolf said that business leader Warren Hellman, who abruptly resigned as co-chairman of the combined museum board in January, would serve as the chairman of the San Francisco museum's finance committee.

The San Francisco board will be headed by Roselyne "Cissie" Swig.

"We're looking forward to being back in action," said Wolf. She estimated the cost of de-merging the two institutions at "well under $100,000."

"It was surprisingly minimal," she said.

Meanwhile, across the bay, the Judah L. Magnes Museum plans to reopen its galleries in mid-October with an exhibit curated by Seymour Fromer, the institution's co-founder.

Magnes officials also are working on plans to build a new museum in downtown Berkeley, replacing the facility's longtime home on a residential street west of the Claremont Hotel.