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Phyllis Wattis, 97; Her Gifts to the Arts Raised San Francisco's National Profile


Phyllis Wattis, one of the nation's most influential cultural philanthropists whose generosity over five decades established her as San Francisco's patron saint of the arts, died Wednesday of natural causes. She was 97.

A great-granddaughter of Mormon leader Brigham Young, she contributed $150 million to cultural institutions in Northern California, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Opera and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Her gifts shaped the institutions and raised the city's national profile in the arts.

For many years she and her husband, Paul Wattis, the late construction and mining magnate whose company was the primary builder of the Hoover Dam, had channeled their philanthropy through a foundation they created in 1958. But in 1988, some years after her husband's death, Wattis, to the astonishment of San Francisco's cultural organizations, dispensed all of its $26 million in assets.

Then she began giving away her capital--more than $100 million.

That amount included more than $20 million to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to buy important works after critics said its collection was unworthy of its architecturally smashing new building. Among the acquisitions Wattis made possible were 14 works by Robert Rauschenberg and others by Eva Hesse, Mark Rothko, Wayne Thiebaud, Anselm Kiefer, Rene Magritte, Marcel Duchamp and Piet Mondrian.

"In recent years, she has been the most significant supporter of the collection and can be credited not only for what she did individually but for the infectious nature of her giving," said Janet Bishop, the museum's curator of painting and sculpture.

"She was someone who saw that it was possible to transform a collection."

Wattis also gave $20 million to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco to rebuild the De Young Museum and strengthen its collection.

Cultural leaders such as Elaine McKeon, chairwoman of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's board of trustees, praised Wattis' "bold, unapologetically modern model" of philanthropic leadership.

Wattis did not just write staggeringly large checks. She tied strong opinions to her money, and was widely respected for the intelligence that informed those views.

Harry Parker, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, recalled once showing her a beautiful 8th century jade mask from Teotihuacan, the site of the pyramids outside Mexico City. "She took one look and said 'You've got too many masks,' " said Parker, who conceded that she was right.

In the museum's next pre-Columbian acquisition, he was careful to avoid masks, choosing instead a major standing sculpture from the period.

"Now that's more like it," she said.

"There was nothing sentimental about her giving," Parker noted. "Money always had an agenda--to do something that was important."

When she gave to the San Francisco Opera--about $6 million since 1985--she insisted that much of the money support new works and emphasized to those in charge that she did not have to like what they chose.

"I've had the same seats at the opera for 30 years. I felt it was my duty to get them out of 'La Boheme,' " she said wryly in explaining her motives to the New York Times in 1998.

Among the contemporary works the opera was able to commission were Sir Michael Tippett's "Midsummer Marriage" and Hans Werner Henze's "The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea." Wattis' largess also covered the entire $2-million tab for a lavish mounting of an older work, Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Her donations to the San Francisco Art Institute reinvigorated the faculty, inducing some early retirements to make way for fresh faces.

"She saw the big picture, which is highly unusual in contemporary philanthropy," said Ella King Torrey, the institute's president.

Wattis did not give much thought to art when she was growing up in Salt Lake City, one of six children of a sugar company executive and a homemaker. She had music lessons that "didn't take" and could not remember ever having visited a museum as a child.

She attended the University of Utah, then switched to UC Berkeley, where she completed a degree in economics. She married and, when the headquarters of her husband's company, Utah Construction and Mining, moved to San Francisco in 1936, she moved with him to California.

Paul Wattis liked opera but not much else in the arts. He was more inclined to support scientific than artistic causes.

"He was interested in golf, duck shooting, the Bohemian Club, the usual things that men like," she once told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I didn't start buying any art until after he died, really, because he thought what you paid for art was so ridiculous. He didn't ever see the value in art."

She discovered modern art while touring Europe in the mid-1960s. During three days at the Documenta art fair in Kassel, Germany, she was introduced to such artists as Alexander Calder, Max Ernst and Emil Nolde.

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