San Francisco’s Pier 24 Photography, a free nonprofit art museum perched on the waterfront below the Bay Bridge, is being evicted. The Port of San Francisco has given the private Pilara Family Foundation, which operates the museum, 30 days to leave the space, citing a long-running rent dispute that has left Pier 24 owing $1.33 million in arrears and late fees.
Pier 24 opened in the 27,300-square-foot space in 2010 as a showcase for the 20th-century photography collection of Andy Pilara, a former investment banker who began collecting photographs in 2003. It was hailed as being unprecedented in scale and ambition for a dedicated photography museum. But the museum’s lease expired in 2017, and that’s when the port hiked its monthly rent up to $48,321—about $18,000 more than it had previously been paying, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Other nonprofit port tenants, such as the Exploratorium, pay comparable rent, which is priced at the going market rate, port representatives argue. “The Pilara Family Foundation wants special treatment. The port can not grant them an exception,” port spokesman Randy Quezada, told the Chronicle. “After two years of good-faith negotiations, the Pilara Family Foundation has essentially stopped paying rent and have not agreed to pay fair market rent going forward. We have to exercise our right to end this lease.”
Pilara tells a different story, insisting that Pier 24 has continued to pay rent throughout the negotiations, according to the terms of the initial lease, with the agreement to pay back the difference once a new lease was signed. The foundation also renovated its warehouse structure—which had been abandoned for three decades—repairing dry rot and termite damage to the tune of $11 million. Prior to the lease’s expiration, it was receiving a $4,000 monthly rent credit in exchange for that work.
Pier 24 did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Should the eviction proceed apace, it would bring an abrupt end to the first of two planned anniversary shows celebrating the museum’s first decade, “Looking Back: Ten Years of Pier 24 Photography.” The exhibition is currently scheduled to remain on view through April 30, 2020.
The Pier 24 collection is worth tens of millions of dollars—on its most recent state tax return, it reported $38 million in assets. It is open to the public, but only with advance appointments that accommodate 30 people at any given time. As a result, it only welcomes 25,000 visitors annually.
In a 2015 investigation led by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the Senate Finance Committee investigated Pier 24 and 10 other private museums to see if they were providing enough public benefit to warrant tax-exempt status. “Despite the good work that is being done by many private museums,” Hatch said, “I remain concerned that this area of our tax code is ripe for exploitation.”
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