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Nion’s World

by Jesse Hamlin | photo by Tri Nguyen

The San Francisco publisher and art connoisseur reflects on his new gallerist role, his literary legacy and the enduring power of books.

Nion McEvoy was standing in the luminous white space of the new McEvoy Foundation for the Arts in Dogpatch, the gritty San Francisco neighborhood now humming with art and commerce, enjoying the juxtaposition of two pictures in the foundation’s inaugural show: Winslow Homer’s exquisite little seascape “Watching the Ships,” next to a big, playfully suggestive Roe Ethridge photograph of a young woman in a red bikini and white skipper’s cap.

“We’ve hung them so you see these boys from the Homer, in the nineteenth century, looking over to her, in the twenty-first,” says McEvoy, the wry and buoyant San Francisco publisher and philanthropist who opened this 5,000-square-foot space last fall with a sea-themed conceptual show that mixed works from his photography and art collection with paintings and drawings acquired by his late mother, Nan Tucker McEvoy. She was the former board chair and publisher of the old Chronicle and granddaughter of its co-founder M.H. de Young.

A longtime commissioner of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where Nion now chairs the board, Nan McEvoy owned the Homer and other beauties on display, including three Diebenkorns and a luscious little painting by her friend Wayne Thiebaud, “For Nan (Cake, Pie Slice, and Olives).” The Ethridge photo comes from her son’s eclectic collection, along with scores of other works in the opening exhibition, which Nion’s curatorial advisor, Kevin Moore, suggested they call “la mer la mère (the sea, the mother).”

There was a classic Edward Weston photograph (“Nude on Sand, Oceano,” 1936); Joan Brown’s 1975 painting “The Weight Room at the Dolphin Club,” with its bold colors and skewed perspectives; and contemporary works as varied as German artist Carsten Höller’s purple polyurethane octopus and Michael Waugh’s big ink-on-mylar triptych “Political Economy (The Wealth of Nations, parts 19, 20 & 21),” a whorling image of a ship tossed at sea, composed entirely of hand-scribbled lines from Adam Smith’s 1776 treatise An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

McEvoy, chairman and CEO of Chronicle Books, the thriving independent publishing house he bought from his cousins in 1999 when the family sold off its media holdings, was thrilled to see so many of these works mingled and displayed together for the first time.

“It’s great to see it all up here, things talking to each other, in relationship to each other, in ways you wouldn’t ordinarily think of,” says McEvoy, a big man with a bountiful Van Dyke beard. Working with artists, curators and writers, he envisions exhibitions and public events showcasing the 3,500 or so works in the McEvoy Family Collection, as well as “work that is related to it in some way or another.”

On February 14, the foundation opens its second exhibition, “Stories: Phillip-Lorca diCorcia & Constance DeJong,” featuring diCorcia’s “A Storybook Life” photographs from 1978 to ’99, and DeJong’s “Radios,” an installation of vintage radios simultaneously playing the voices of people telling disarmingly personal tales. McEvoy jokes about calling the space the DeJong Museum, a riff on the Golden Gate Park institution founded by his great-grandfather, for the show’s duration.

“My basic curatorial principle is: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” declares the 65-year-old, quoting the Duke Ellington classic. He’s a rock drummer and music lover whose trio, Rough Draft, is one of the groups that have played in the nonprofit’s multi-use warehouse. It’s a stone’s throw from the big Minnesota Street Project, other galleries, artists’ studios and stylish restaurants that have energized the Dogpatch district and given what McEvoy calls “a gravitational pull” for people in the arts.

Raised in Washington, D.C., by his divorced mother—his father, Dennis McEvoy, was a writer and Reader’s Digest editor who published the magazine in Spain and Japan and wrote novels and comics—McEvoy joined Chronicle Books’ editing team in 1986. He’d earned an English degree at UC Santa Cruz (he’s a key funder of the Grateful Dead Archive there), got a law degree at Hastings and practiced entertainment law at the William Morris Agency in LA for several years before joining the family business.

In those days, the house published about 25 books a year with a staff of 16. By the time he successfully bid on the company—when the Chronicle sold its newspaper to Hearst and KRON-TV to another company—there were 130 employees and they published around 300 books annually, about the same as now.

“I felt if I did that I wouldn’t have to go looking for another job immediately,” says McEvoy, laughing.

He scored a coup the next year when he bought the rights to publish The Beatles Anthology, which sold a million copies and topped the New York Times Bestseller list. The house continues to publish its signature mix of art and design books, children’s books, books about food and drink, life and style, music and games, and such. Their titles are known for artful design and illustrations and attitudinal flair.

“There’s usually a little whimsy in the books, and often a little edge,” remarks McEvoy, who had the memorable experience of working with the late, famed and famously explosive rock photographer Jim Marshall on a book of his work.

“I think there’s a sensuous quality to our publishing. In the digital age, we have really made our specialty the physicality of the book. Digital does not do physical well. With a book, you get the feel of the paper. It’s an object. It’s tactile. Those qualities are underappreciated because of our obsession with the bright and shiny and new. But they are very much valued. People still love books

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