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The Italian Job: It Takes a Village

By Laura Hilgers

Sandra Bagnatori and her mother, Paola, pose inside the San Francisco’s Museo Italo America at Fort Mason. The two are working to raise $25 million to move the Museo to a larger location in the Barbary Coast/North Waterfront neighborhood. (Spencer Brown)

In the quest to build a new, improved museum for San Francisco’s Italian Americans, Paola Bagnatori aims to raise $25 million to fulfill her dream of moving the Museo Italo Americano from Fort Mason to Battery Street.

For years, Paola Bagnatori wanted a larger space for San Francisco’s Museo Italo Americano. She’s the managing director of the museum, and more than a little passionate about the Italian Americans who helped create San Francisco and inhabit it today: Angelo Rossi, the mayor who greenlighted the Golden Gate Bridge. A.P. Giannini, the founder of the Bank of America, who funded construction of the bridge. Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, co-founders of Airbnb. Even Jack Dorsey, who co-founded Twitter.

But in the Museo’s current location at Fort Mason, Bagnatori felt like she couldn’t begin to convey what Italians meant to the City. Though the 5,000-square-foot museum is filled with work by important artists such as Arnaldo Pomodoro, Beniamino Bufano and Rinaldo Cuneo, and offers weekly language classes for Italophiles, it’s bursting out of its space. Because there are no classrooms, Italian classes are held in the galleries. Because there is minimal storage, the museum has to rent a space halfway across the City for their more than 700 pieces of art. They also lack room for a permanent, historical exhibit.

So in January, the Museo kicked off its capital campaign with a fundraiser at Tosca Café. The goal: to raise $25 million to move the Museo to a larger location in San Francisco’s Barbary Coast/North Waterfront neighborhood. The Italian Consul General Lorenzo Ortona, restaurateur Alice Waters and art patron Maria Manetti Shrem attended the event.

Ortona, in particular, has been one of the project’s most ardent supporters. “When we think of Italian immigration to the U.S., we usually think of Ellis Island,” he says. “But the migration to the West Coast was different. The Italians who came to San Francisco were from the north, places like Liguria, Tuscany and Lucca, where as the southern Italians mainly moved to the East. It’s important to tell the story of the migration to the West Coast.”

Ortona is one of many people who have worked hard to bring the new Museo to life, including Paola’s daughter — and Museo board member — Sandra Bagnatori. But Paola, who has a colorful personality and an occasional disdain for political correctness, set the plan in motion. “Mainly,” she says,“because I don’t give up easily.”

Bagnatori emigrated from Italy in 1947 as a 17-year-old, and began volunteering in the museum shortly after Giuliana Nardelli Haight started it in a storeroom above North Beach’s Caffe Malvina in 1978. In 1985, the Museo moved to Fort Mason, and Bagnatori became the managing director 19 years later. By then, she had already begun vigorously courting an elderly, wealthy and eccentric donor, Jerome Cocuzza, asking him to leave them a building after he died. In 2012, Cocuzza’s estate bequeathed a former mattress warehouse, at 940 Battery St., to the Museo.

In order for the Museo to move in, the 1917 building will require more than $20 million in seismic upgrades and renovations. But with three levels and more than 10,000 square feet for gallery, interpretative and retail space (plus additional room for classrooms and administration), it will offer much more room than the museum’s current location. It also has two top floors that the Museo plans to rent to commercial tenants to support the museum’s long–term sustainability.

Early on in the process, the Museo hired Steve Oliver, the builder and arts philanthropist, to handle the construction, which was molto bene. Not only has Oliver owned a home in Italy for years, but the former SFMOMA chairman has also shown a deep commitment to helping cultural institutions build at an affordable cost. His past projects include the Charles M. Schulz Museum and the Berkeley Rep.

The Museo also charged Mark Cavagnero, the San Francisco architect behind the SF Jazz Center and the Oakland Museum of California, with designing the space. And they enlisted Jeremy Regenbogen, an interpretive museum designer, to help reimagine the museum’s programming. With Regenbogen’s help, Bagnatori and her board articulated that they wanted a deep dive into the immigrant experience, in addition to exhibiting art.

“They’ve always envisioned a big historical exhibit kind of talking about the history of Italian Americans in California,” says Regenbogen. “The space itself is envisioned around storytelling.”

When the upgrades are complete, the Museo’s second floor will house a permanent exhibit, “Italians in California.” One of this exhibit’s highlights will be Sunday Dinner, a long table set with “plates” (Mangia! Mangia!), each of which is an interactive device telling a story about the Italian American experience. The floor will also have a teaching kitchen, a recording booth in which visitors can record their stories and an exhibit called Deconstructing a Stereotype — which debunks a persistent association between Italians and the Mafia.

“What was guiding us were the amazing contributions that Italians have made to San Francisco and the state,” says Mecca Billings, the Museo’s capital campaign consultant. “But even though the museum is celebrating Italians andItalian Americans, it’s going to be for everyone. We believe everyone’s going to feel moved by the experience we’re creating here.”

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