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Appreciation: Gretchen Berggruen

By Catherine Bigelow

Gretchen Berggruen pictured in 2008 with husband John and their son, Alexander. (Drew Altizer Photography)

Cherished for her warmth, intuition and invaluable role at famed gallery

Gretchen Berggruen, a luminous and beloved art curator and collector, died September 11 at her Russian Hill home surrounded by her husband and business partner, storied gallerist John Berggruen, and their children.

In May, she was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an incurable degenerative disorder known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Shortly before her death, Gretchen completed the extensive exhibition compendium Berggruen Gallery: 50 Years,1970–2020, which debuts this month. Its publication was pegged to a new Berggruen retrospective celebrating the 100th birthday of renowned painter-printmaker Wayne Thiebaud. “Gretchen interacted with clients in a genuine, warm and intuitive way. She was delightful company and a calming influence for me,” says John, fondly. “She also possessed a skilled eye in hanging exhibitions that expertly suited our program.”

Both the book and exhibition (opening October 16 at the couple’s eponymous Hawthorne Street gallery), are dedicated to Gretchen, who, as a volunteer docent at the Oakland Museum of California, first met her future husband in 1976 while working on another Thiebaud birthday exhibition. Out of the blue, she called Berggruen asking if he’d purchase a birthday cake in the style of one of Thiebaud’s iconic pastry paintings.

At the time, Gretchen was contemplating graduate school. But her call so charmed Berggruen, who assumed she was a curator, that after purchasing the cake he offered her a job in his former Grant Avenue gallery. Years after divorcing her first husband, Ron Weiss, Gretchen and John eventually fell in love and wed in 1985.

Self-taught in the art world, Gretchen discovered gallery work was what she enjoyed most: One could determine the scope and placement of a show sans input from multiple committees.

The Berggruens were a fixture in the modern and contemporary art world, developing their gallery into one of the West Coast’s most preeminent, while working with such artists as Thiebaud, Ed Ruscha, Helen Frankenthaler, Mark di Suvero, Christopher Brown, Lorna Simpson, Martin Puryear and Linda Ridgway.

Born July 2, 1945, in Boston, Gretchen Friedenberg grew upon the Massachusetts coast. Her father’s aerospace career landed the family in California, settling on the Peninsula in unincorporated Ladera. She put herself through college, earning a bachelor’s degree in English from San Francisco State University.

Last fall, the Berggruens’ son, Alexander Berggruen, 32, opened his own contemporary gallery in New York. From a young age, he traveled the world with his parents, attending art fairs, museum shows and gallery openings.

“My mom specialized in working with collectors longterm. It wasn’t what’s hot or the quick transaction. She focused on movements or artists that would change the conversation for years to come,” shares Alexander. “Her thoughtful vision inspired collectors, and me, to discover what art can mean. And she was the best, most selfless mom.”

Art collector and decades long friend Peter Michael met John at Robert Louis Stevenson boarding school in Monterey. Their friendship continued through their bachelor days. And the minute John met Gretchen, Michael knew she was the one for his friend. A few years later, the Berggruens would introduce Michael to their friend Eileen McKeon, who would become his wife.

Michael recalls Gretchen’s calm savvy — even during childbirth: “When Gretchen was in labor with Alex, I went to the hospital, but it was a long wait. John has a lot of energy, so Gretchen wisely asked that I take John out for dinner and a martini.”

Gretchen Berggruen was widely admired as a role model among her female colleagues. Outside the gallery, she gladly swapped her suits for waders to indulge her fly-fishing passion. She also lovingly tended her Napa Valley garden, which yielded such bounty that Berggruen regularly delivered her fresh produce to Glide Memorial’s kitchen.

Gretchen is survived by her sister, Merle Friedenberg; her husband and their son; daughter Meredith (Erez) Levy, and grandchildren Andrew and Jane Levy; and daughter Jennifer Weiss and grandson Charlie Weiss.

Due to COVID-19, the family held a small memorial. At a future date, the family plans to have a private celebration of life. Donations to honor Gretchen’s legacy maybe made to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art or Glide Memorial Church Foundation.

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