New chair admits new Magnes in SOMA may be 5 years away

It may take four or five years longer than anticipated to raise funds for the Magnes Museum's planned expansion, according to the museum's newly elected chairman.

By rushing too quickly to the fund-raising stage, the museum made a major error, "putting the horse before the cart," Warren Hellman said.

Hellman, 68, admits he has his work cut out for him in righting that cart and riding it down a road that has grown much longer in the past year.

Officials at the Magnes — the 9-month-old amalgamation of the Jewish Museum San Francisco and Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum — originally predicted that a brand-new San Francisco museum across from Yerba Buena Gardens and a new Berkeley site on Allston Street would open by 2003.

Neither project has broken ground, and Hellman said it may take as long as five years to raise the necessary $140 million. But he still hopes that both sites will be "up and visitable" within, perhaps, three to four years.

"Right now we have no exact time-frame. We have no exact anything," said Connie Wolf, the museum's executive director.

When asked how much money the museum has amassed toward expansion, Hellman candidly replied, "Not much."

The Magnes "hurried more than they should have. They needed to make the case for the museum before they started the capital campaign. They somewhat put the cart before the horse and I think that annoyed some people," said Hellman, scion of a San Francisco Jewish family with roots in the city tracing back to the mid-19th century and the chairman of Hellman & Friedman LLC, a highly successful private investment firm.

"It was an ambitious project, a very large capital campaign in a time when the resources of the community became very stretched. When the Nasdaq is at 5,000, anything seemed possible…I think their timing wasn't the best, leaving aside economics for a minute. There were a lot of other major projects going on."

In 1996, the Jewish Museum San Francisco appointed Rabbi Brian Lurie as its chief executive officer. The hope was that Lurie, former executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and executive vice president of United Jewish Appeal, would spearhead the fund-raising drive leading to the opening of the museum's 50,000-square-foot new home on Jessie Street.

Over time, the new SOMA building's proposed size grew to 70,000 and then 90,000 square feet, and the building's price tag swelled from $15 million to $35 million — with the overall project budgeted at well more than $100 million.

In September 1998, the museum vacated the space it has inhabited in the JCF's Steuart Street offices since 1984, with plans to move into the new building, but it moved back three months later.

Renowned architect Daniel Libeskind — who designed Berlin's Jewish museum — drew up plans for the structure in 1999, but the building process immediately stalled, supposedly because of fund-raising problems.

Hellman, described as a brilliant investor, deal-maker and merger expert by friends and business colleagues, is seen by museum leadership as just the man to kick the Magnes onto the right track.

"The whole thing has to be looked at in the light of the merger and the finances available. That's why Warren Hellman is a very hopeful leader. He commands the respect of the community," said Seymour Fromer, the museum's director emeritus and the co-founder of the Judah L. Magnes Museum.

Adds Gerson Bakar, a longtime Hellman friend: "The Jewish museum has been proceeding along with fits and starts for whatever reason. I don't know all of the problems or why they're having them, but if anybody can get it done, Warren will."

Daniel Offit, the Magnes Museum's co-chairman, acknowledged that "there may be only a couple of people in the community who can do the heavy lifting Warren will be doing."

Hellman, with a laugh, responded, "Both of them turned it down."

A wiry, fit man with a ready smile, a penchant for ultra-marathons and a tattoo of his horse on his right shin, Hellman sets his No. 1 priority as making the Magnes expansion "a project that is high on the hierarchy of the needs of our community.

"I hate to sound so crass but, first, we need to sell the product and then sell the need for the factory," said Hellman, employing an industrial analogy. "The factory is the facility, and people will not put up money for that until they become convinced they need the product…We need to make the case to the Jewish community that there is a real story to be told" about the history of West Coast Jewry.

"One of my particular passions is the history of the Jews in the West, and it's not really out there. I was watching a program on how the West was built, and they talked about the Hunts, the Stanfords, the silver kings, and I kept saying, 'Where's Levi Strauss? Where's Sutro, Fleishhacker, my great-grandfather?'" recalled Hellman, whose family founded Wells Fargo.

"I won't say I found it offensive, but Jews are a part of this community, major contributors since at least the mid-19th century. Why isn't there some recognition of that, even in our own community? It's a story that needs to be told."

Hellman is a past chairman of the San Francisco Foundation, and served on the Mills College board, but his position of leadership at the Magnes Museum is his first within the Jewish communal world. A self-described late-comer to Jewish studies, Hellman said he wouldn't have felt comfortable in a position like this until now.

Hellman, who grew up in San Francisco and attended U.C. Berkeley, described his upbringing as extremely assimilated. He didn't get in touch with his Judaism until he was about 55 years old, following a seminal discussion with Lurie, then at the helm of the JCF.

Following the discussion, Hellman founded a Torah study group, originally taught by Lurie but led by U.C. Berkeley Professor emeritus William "Ze'ev" Brinner for the past seven or eight years.

Hellman said he hoped to hold the Magnes chairmanship for about four years, at which time he could either leave, having accomplished his goals, or be fired "for having been ineffectual."

"Do they need someone like me? I think so," said Hellman. "It's a very tough environment, and this project either needs to be started or restarted, but it definitely needs to go from walking to running over a period of time. I like projects like that."