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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Golden opportunity: A Santa Rosa exhibit offers the public a chance to see Forestville art collector Tom Golden's large collection of work by installation artist Christo and his partner, Jeanne-Claude, the creators of Running Fence.

Solid Gold

Art aficionado Tom Golden brings his Christo collection to Santa Rosa

By Patrick Sullivan

IT'S A RAINY Saturday morning in downtown Santa Rosa, and foot traffic on Fourth Street is even lighter than usual. But a few curious pedestrians brave the foul weather and wander through the front door of the Kress Building, full of questions.

They're drawn by the painted oil drum, by the wrapped stapler, by the walls full of sketches, photos, and collages showing some of the world's most famous bridges and buildings trussed up like packages under the tree on Christmas morning.

Inside, these intrepid art seekers come face to face with one of the quirkier manifestations of contemporary art. As they wander through the exhibit--titled "26 Golden Years with Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The Tom Golden Collection"--they have a few thoughts. And they're not shy about expressing them.

"Christo thought up something that was kind of cute, and he just never stopped doing it," explains one 20-something man to his female companion.

But even the most critical observers carefully walk the full circuit of the room, slowly taking in the sights. Here's the German Reichstag, buried in silver fabric. There's a group of islands in Biscayne Bay in Florida surrounded by 6.5 million square feet of pink fabric.

All the projects depicted are the work of Bulgarian-born installation artist Christo and his partner and spouse, Jeanne-Claude, best known in Sonoma County for their Running Fence, a 1974 project that involved installing a 24.5-mile-long nylon fence that ran from Cotati to the Marin coast.

Whether you're a skeptic or an enthusiast, it's hard to imagine a better introduction to the artists' work than this exhibit, which is sponsored by City Vision and the Sonoma County Museum and continues through March 26. The sketches and photographs give a real feeling for both the intense effort involved in these large-scale installations and their final visual impact.


Photograph by Jeanne-Claude

'Running Fence': Installation artist Christo once dressed the North Bay in miles of sail-like sheeting.

THAT EXPANSIVE overview is no accident. Few people have maintained a more intimate connection with Christo and Jeanne-Claude and their work than Tom Golden, the 79-year-old Forestville art collector and retired real estate agent who owns the collection.

When Christo and Jeanne-Claude came to Sonoma County to create Running Fence, they touched the lives of many local residents. But perhaps their greatest impact was on Tom Golden.

"Meeting Christo and Jeanne-Claude changed the course of my life," he explains. "I'm sure I'd be doing something if I hadn't met them, but I'm not sure what, and it's very rewarding to think that I can and do work with them."

The three met by accident. Golden happened to be in the county administration building when the first public hearing began on the Running Fence project. Intrigued by what he heard, Golden stayed for the meeting and even rose to speak on Christo's behalf.

"I got up and I said, 'I don't know why we're wasting the taxpayers' money on this hearing today,'" he recalls. "'Here's a man who wants to come in and put up a fence on private agricultural property. And I would just like to remind the commission that there is no permit required for cross-fencing on agricultural land.'"

"Then I sat down," he says. "And Christo and Jeanne-Claude came over, we went out to dinner that night, and that was the beginning of everything."

Eventually, after spending $500,000 on legal fees, Christo prevailed, and Golden plunged into the Running Fence project. The art collector's house in Forestville became the project's social headquarters, and Golden even applied for a job on the labor team installing the fence.

"They thought I was too old to work on the fence," says Golden, who was 54 at the time. "Christo screamed. 'Oh, you can't do that. It's much too hard work.' And Jeanne-Claude said, 'We'll tell them not to hire you because you're too old.'"

But Golden applied anyway, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude relented, so he was soon working hard hooking nylon fabric to the poles. He went on to win an award for being the fastest hooker.

"The first night of my Running Fence experience, I went to bed and I could hardly get up the next day," he says with a laugh. "But I did."

During Running Fence, Golden also began to collect Christo's work. He refused to accept his paychecks for working on the project, instead asking that he be given credit in Christo's studio. He quickly built up an impressive array of sketches, photos, and small wrapped objects. Today, he possesses over 200 pieces, which makes his the largest private Christo collection in the United States.

At the conclusion of Running Fence, Golden's involvement in the couple's work only increased. He helped the two artists with several other projects, and is now the project manager on their work-in-progress, Over the River, Project for the Arkansas River, Colorado.

But the art collector also became close friends with Christo and Jeanne-Claude: "I became like family," he says, and he speaks with amused affection about the couple's flamboyant personalities and dedication to their art.

His adventures with Christo and Jeanne-Claude are many. His greatest triumph, he says, was personally securing permits for The Umbrellas project--which involved planting hundreds of giant umbrellas in a California valley--without spending a dime on legal fees.

Then there was the Pont Neuf project, which saw Christo wrapping the most famous bridge in Paris. When one of the bridge's lamps burned out, the workers who changed the bulb had to unwrap the lamp, and the busy Christo asked Golden to rewrap the suddenly naked post.

There was some problem with the work permit, so the rewrapping had to be done at night. Christo began giving his friend a complicated and unnecessary set of instructions about the process of wrapping--a process Golden had observed many times before.

"We went through this three or four times, and finally I said, 'For God's sake, Christo, if you'll just let me go, I'll get it done,'" Golden says with a hearty laugh. "So he says, 'Well, I'm very sorry.' And that was that."

But the hazards of working with quirky artists aside, Golden is effusive about his relationship with Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

"I'm very fortunate to know them," he says. "They are probably the most honest people I know, not only on the personal level, but also their art, which is very honest and straightforward, no gimmicks. Also, I admire their dedication. Each project they do, they put everything they have into it."

That integrity and dedication will keep him involved with the two artists for the foreseeable future, Golden says. And he's not shy about responding to those skeptics who don't quite see the point of the whole thing.

"They do the projects for themselves and their collaborators and for no other reason," Golden explains. "Christo's projects have absolutely no purpose whatsoever. In many cases, there's a possibility that they border on the irresponsible. Nobody needs a Surrounded Islands, no one needs a Running Fence. They have absolutely no purpose other than being works of art of joy and beauty."


"26 Golden Years with Christo and Jeanne-Claude" is open to the public Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 12 to 4 p.m. Golden offers a slide presentation and lecture on Saturday, March 4, from 4 to 6 p.m. The exhibit continues through March 26 at the Kress Building, 613 Fourth St., Santa Rosa. Admission is free. For details, call 579-1500.

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From the March 2-8, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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