Phyllis Cannon Wattis passed away in June 2002 at the age of 97. During her lifetime, she generously supported many organizations in the Bay Area, but she was especially interested in the arts – both fine arts and performing arts. She served prominently on the boards of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Opera and proved to be a committed financial and ideological supporter of these organizations. Her vision helped shape the arts community in San Francisco to be one of daring and cutting edge endeavors.
Mrs. Wattis moved to San Francisco from Utah with her husband Paul in 1937. They raised two children and enjoyed a very active life in the community. Paul and Phyllis Wattis established a charitable foundation in 1958. The giving of the Paul L. and Phyllis Wattis Foundation reflected the varied interests of the donors. Most notably, the foundation supported organizations that focused on archaeology and anthropology. In 1973, the foundation made a sizable grant to the California Academy of Sciences to open the “Wattis Hall of Man.” Through the next decade and a half, the foundation made many contributions to organizations throughout the bay area. But in 1988, Mrs. Wattis made the decision to dissolve the foundation and distribute the assets. On a single day in September 1988, forty Bay Area organizations received collectively $26 million dollars.
Mrs. Wattis was interested in many different things, but her great love was the arts. She became involved with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the 1950’s, and over the decades had formed a vision for the institution that centered on making it – in her words – “four stars, worth the detour.” She was an integral part of the capital campaign which enabled the museum to move from its archaic shared space in the War Memorial Building to its own contemporary building on Third Street. The move of SFMoMA to its south of Market location has been cited as a huge reason that this neighborhood has seen a Renaissance, drawing in new restaurants, hotels, and even a new baseball stadium. Furthermore, Mrs. Wattis was also instrumental in the Museum’s acquisitions of significant 20th century works by artists such as Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, Eva Hesse and Robert Rauschenberg.
Her generous gift to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco – comprised of the Legion of Honor, the de Young Museum and the Achenbach Collection of Works on Paper – helped the institution purchase important and varied works such as a collection of works on paper by Ed Ruscha, an ancient Mayan stela, and significant works of art from Africa and New Guinea. And, as with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Mrs. Wattis’ involvement and leadership proved to be invaluable during the Fine Arts Museum’s capital campaign to build the new de Young Museum, which opened in October 2005 in Golden Gate Park.
Mrs. Wattis’ contributions to the performing arts were equally important. She was an ardent supporter of the San Francisco Symphony, one of the world’s most outstanding symphonies. She was especially generous to the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra and was a faithful supporter of their European tour. For the San Francisco Opera, she helped underwrite the production of new operas, specifically Tennessee William’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” and the critically acclaimed “Dead Man Walking.” Her relationship with the San Francisco Ballet and its school began in 1944 with a contribution that helped underwrite the very first American production of “The Nutcracker” – now a holiday staple performed all over the country.
On July 25, 2002 – just over a month after Mrs. Wattis passed away – Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi made a statement to the US House of Representatives in honor of Phyllis Wattis. “Phyllis’ extraordinary generosity and commitment to artistic, educational, and scientific organizations continues to enrich the lives of all of us who live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Through her philanthropy and her personal warmth, she left an indelible mark on our city and the lives of those who loved and admired her. Phyllis’ contribution to the arts was not only financial. Her leadership, creativity and intelligence were immense gifts in their own right. She was never afraid to take risks on new and innovative art, and her vision helped enable arts organizations to push forward into new ground. Her sharp eye and captivating personality helped to nurture some of the city’s most important cultural institutions. Like the art she left behind, our memories of Phyllis are permanent and beautiful.”