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State of the Arts

Is fine art a lost art in Sonoma County?

By Gretchen Giles

SO HERE'S the conundrum: What do you think of when you think of art? One might just as easily ask: What do you think of when you think of beauty? How about love? And hey, what was the best damn meal you ever ate?

This is getting a little personal.

And so it should, because what could be more personal than the eye-of-the-beholder aesthetic that leads some to pair checks with plaids or red barns and green fields with gilt frames and big prices?

Is art that little tiny Giaconda hanging by her inscrutable lonesome at the Louvre, glimpsed only while high-jumping behind the heads of German tourists? Or is it a metal lawn chair pocked with paperback books sitting for jury at the Recycletown center of the dump? Could it be a sensual California landscape of the soft yellow bosom of hills?

And we won't even begin to discuss Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," that federally funded depiction of a crucified Jesus immersed in an aging flask of urine that caused a resurrection of furor over National Endowment for the Arts funding.

Would you know art if you saw it, and--more important to artists and art professionals--would you buy it?

Questions, questions, questions. Look around at the art on view in Sonoma County galleries--the few that remain--or in public places, wineries, and the shopping centers, and you'll get as many answers as there are questions. For the most part, those answers are spelled out on the bottom line of a check.

Because for those who don't live here, Sonoma County is Wine Country: warm weekend afternoons spent tooling around with the A/C blasting almost as loudly as the Vivaldi, stopping to swirl and spit in the angel's-share scent of tasting rooms, pulling over to exclaim over the quaintness of those rural folks who doggedly hang onto their cherry stands and Grateful Dead memorabilia, and perhaps buying a canvas or two.

The art that these lucky stiffs usually view is tasteful and safe, looks great in the breakfast nook, and would be sure to appreciate in value if the artist would only give up on yoga and wheat grass and die.

But world-renowned steel sculptor Mark di Suvero has a studio here, as do risk-taking abstract painter Mark Perlman and acclaimed light sculptor Michael Hayden. Want to see their work? Do you have a ticket to Manhattan?

Now, that's not entirely fair, as di Suvero's work can easily be seen in museums in Dallas and France, and there's always a chance for a good long look at his towering structures if you get stuck in traffic on Petaluma Boulevard near his studio.

And Perlman and Hayden have fortunately both had recent shows at the California Museum of Art, elbowed off left of the sprawl of the Luther Burbank Center. But if you haven't hied your hiney up to the CMA or crossed to the Atlantic side of the continent, chances are that Sonoma County art means little more to you than, well, art that literally looks like Sonoma County.

"Tourists want indigenous art," exclaims Santa Rosa resident Patricia Sweetow, who owns the prestigious Napa gallery that bears her name. "And what is indigenous in wine country? Grapes!"

And so grapes it is. Or lyrical landscapes, close-up renderings of cows, and more than our share of barns weathering gracefully away in fields.

So, alas, more questions: Is this bad art? As any merchant who makes a living selling the stuff will tell you, the answer is no. After all, we're not talking velvet Elvises here, we're talking competent, pleasing renditions that flatter the landscape and beautify the home.

Is this fine art? There's the rub.

Eyes Have It

The pairing of art and money is a marriage of necessity, the roots of which family tree reach back somewhere before that time when Michelangelo looked up at his first ceiling from a straw cradle on the floor. Artists, ethereal and otherworldly as they might seem (or might like to seem), actually do need more than a loaf of bread and a jug of wine. They need thou, and thou's checkbook.

Therefore, a logical person might reason, it only makes sense to produce what can be sold. But artists are fickle that way. They stubbornly continue to do what they love, even if there isn't a picture of a cow anywhere on the darn canvas.

Logic also suggests that a public weaned on commercial art will react favorably to commercial art. Those trained through a friendly contact with more adventurous work will eventually be drawn to that. It's remarkably like what ducklings do when they fixate during patterning on their mom or the closest farmer. And it ain't rocket science. Heck, it's a Kevin Costner movie: If you show it, they will come (to understand it).

Barbara Harris is the executive director of the Cultural Arts Council of Sonoma County. Among her projects is supporting the drug- and alcohol-free First Night Santa Rosa arts fest that premiered last New Year's Eve, hosting the ARTrails open studios event each fall, mounting art exhibits in public places, and running an ongoing Arts in Action project at the Santa Rosa Plaza.

Harris, a tireless promoter of the arts who works her non-profit tail off, is hurt to hear that her agency has been attacked in artistic circles for being too middle-of-the-road, mounting shows considered "safe," and for using the mall as a venue.

"I'm disappointed to hear that that's the perception people have of us," she says emphatically. "However, on some level that may be correct. Because we are a county [funded] agency, we are mandated and expected to include as many people as possible. The work may not be as unusual or difficult to appreciate as what some people consider to be cutting-edge. I would like to think that whatever we do is educating people. We certainly do not consider ourselves as providing only the mundane and the mediocre."

As to the charge that the Arts in Action program--which offers a wide range of performing and visual artists doing their thing in the echoing din of the mall--isn't challenging enough, Harris responds with a passion.

"The Santa Rosa Plaza employs over $1,000 worth of artists each month," she says, "and First Night has an incredible budget for artists. For the last three years, we've been able to create and be involved in programs where artists are paid.

"And when someone calls us up and says that they want us to find them artists who will volunteer their time for exposure, you know, that's just abusive. And we don't advocate that at all. Artists are professionals; they have to be paid.

"A dentist doesn't volunteer to work on your teeth," she adds evenly. "We do have the ability to create opportunities for artists to work and to be paid."

Harris is in a quandary. While some may blast the CAC for not reaching far enough, she has to ensure that it doesn't stumble into the overwrought aesthetic of a Dada-hell that would alienate the public.

"Do you suit the art for the patron, or do you take it to a little bit higher level, where you encourage people to strive a little?" she muses. "You run the risk of tipping it off the scale, where people will be turned off, where they say, 'Oh, my kid could do that' or 'I could do that with my eyes closed,' or any of those ridiculous clichés, which brings us back to the point that we have the responsibility for educating people.

"I don't want people to think that all art is mundane or mediocre," she continues thoughtfully. "And I don't want to maintain a level of accessibility to the arts that's mundane and mediocre. But I also don't want people to run screaming from the room and to not become educated. And you don't want to coddle people, because that's condescending. But at the same time, is there a norm?

"It's a real dilemma."

Harris attempts a balancing act by showcasing more challenging art, such as the current "Party Animals" exhibit of whimsical man-made guests, now showing at the CAC's storefront SoFo Gallery. More traditional watercolor and photography efforts are hung at such public sites as the City Council chambers and the county Office of Education.

Plans are afoot to move her off-the-beaten-path office near Juilliard Park to the more beaten streets of Railroad Square by Dec. 1, with hopes pinned on having a larger exhibition space and a lecture area, as well as making room to involve young people purposefully in preparing for a career in the arts.

And Harris sees her ARTrails project, which some scoff at--irreverently terming it Arts-and-Crafts-Trails--as being a unique way to show aspiring artists that not all practitioners live in penury and despair.

"We have had a lot of young people who go to studios and discover that the arts can be a viable occupation, as well as a provider of self-esteem and self-worth," she asserts.

As to the sneers from those who relate that they don't do ARTrails because of the craft element, Harris responds quickly. "I would say honest-to-god that it's half and half. Are we talking two- as opposed to three-dimensional art? How are we qualifying fine art? Is it abstract as opposed to representational art? That's been a dilemma forever: What's the difference between fine art and arts and crafts? I don't have an answer to that.

"I think that ARTrails is a great program, and I'm sorry that people don't feel it's worth their while. I like the idea that we have a good cross-section of all kinds of art, and I like the idea that we're representing the county, and that we're not just representing a certain section of the incredible wealth of talent that's here. It is diverse, and to have the opportunity to present that to as many people as we do is pretty exciting."

Museum Quality

While Harris is forced to shake like a hurricane-whipped willow by praise and condemnation, praise alone is reserved for the work of the California Museum of Art and its director, Gay Shelton.

Folk artist Poe Dismuke, who recently had a show of his witty, monstrous creations at the CMA, is asked if the show garnered any extra interest in his work. "Uh, none," he responds in his typically fluent way. "The only reason I did it was because of Gay and the respect I have for what she's trying to do."

Gallery owner Patricia Sweetow is more emphatic: "I have to give quite a hand to the CMA. It is a venue that is opening up to a lot of cutting-edge work. I commend [Gay] more than I can say."

As for Shelton, well, she wishes that more people would venture up to the LBC and peek in her doors. "Part of our problem is that no one comes here," she laments. "We go to a great deal of effort to put on a great show, we have a wonderful reception, and our Salon nights are full of vitality, but during the week, it's not as lively as it should be."

After it is gently pointed out to her that, after all, there is no food nearby, she agrees. "We need a café."

Stretched out on the high lonely of a destination point like the LBC, the museum mounts exhibits of work by artists not normally seen in the confines of Sonoma County. Shelton makes it a point to pair nationally known artists with homegrown talent.

"We're primarily a presenting venue," Shelton says. "But the way and the reason that we present is that we're trying to bring something here that you don't ordinarily have access to, or to show something that you might find here into a context that kind of opens it up. One of my approaches this year has been to take local artists and to show them with non-local artists who either have greater critical acclaim or exposure, or are working in a very similar way."

But for whom is Shelton framing her context? "You know, it's kind of interesting," she responds. "It depends on what you take to be your community. First of all, I think that there is a lot of access to red barns and windmills, the kind of trite landscape paintings that come to mind when you think of mall art. I don't think that that kind of art needs any more exposure; you see it on calendars and whatnot.

"I really feel that I get a pretty good cross-section in here of people in the community. So it's not showing the community the lowest common denominator of what people think that they'd like to see, but it's exposing the art community and all of its fullness. There are two target groups here that need to talk to each other, and the museum is really kind of the forum where that can happen."

The key, according to Shelton, is exposure. That's what would solve Harris' nightmare vision of grandmothers and children running screaming from the confines of a gallery.

"One's tastes usually run to what one has seen," says Shelton, jumping on the logic bandwagon. "One doesn't usually imagine a piece of art that one hasn't seen and think 'Oh, that's the thing I want.'

"In that respect, I think that the museum is building connoisseurship, and that will eventually lead to a different type of art market in Sonoma County. Right now, the county is at a certain phase of development, and that means that the commercial end of fine art is at a certain level. For me, the art at that level is not particularly interesting. I like to look at art, I'm a visual person, so it's not that it insults me in anyway, but it doesn't move me, because I've been to the city and I've seen other things, world-class art."

How do you stay on the farm once you've seen gay Paree?

"Well, once you've been to gay Paree," she answers mildly, "You think, 'Hmm, wouldn't it be great to bring some of that home?'"

Art Mart

"The art scene here in Sonoma County is varied and has lots of levels, and I don't mean by that that the bottom is bad and the top is good," continues Shelton. "I think that people in the community need to have opportunities to see all kinds of different things. And the museum fills a certain niche with that. We're showing work that the [community] might not have the opportunity to see in a retail environment."

Not that there's much of a retail environment to see. Galleries are dropping faster than names at an art opening. The latest casualty is the Greta Peck Gallery in Santa Rosa. Closing for love, Peck is moving to Southern California to marry, but couldn't find a buyer for her business. "There are some real problems selling art in this community," she says definitively.

"I've been here for 13 years," Peck continues, "and I've seen a real decline in the number of tourists that come to the downtown area. I don't know how to explain that. It's just the trend that I've seen. I think that they're bypassing Santa Rosa and going to Healdsburg and Sonoma and Napa."

Retail art isn't too rosy in those burgs, either. Patricia Sweetow is rolling up her Napa-based canvases and moving to San Francisco to be closer to the buzz of the art world, and to make it easier for her Bay Area collectors--who compose some 60-70 percent of her clientele--to visit her. "The continual lament from arts professionals is that people look to the major metropolitan areas for art," she asserts. "And this is true. To establish yourself outside that center is an enormous task."

Initially, Sweetow's dream was to open her gallery--which specializes in promoting the work of cutting-edge, professional artists--smack in the center of Santa Rosa. "I didn't do it for a number of reasons," she explains. "One was location. I was having a very difficult time finding an area that I felt would have the ability to attract the number of people I would need to establish my business.

"And," she offers, "I needed an area that had stability." Napa offered Sweetow a city-owned space to lure her. She bit.

Peck plans to diversify, hanging on to established local artists and showcasing them in private homes at private parties for private customers. "The only time that I see my clients is when I have shows, which is once a month at the most, so it becomes a very costly venue to show art when people are really only buying at specific events," she says, citing the financial difficulties of maintaining a retail space.

But what about the poor toiler who, blinking straight from a fluorescent-lit cubicle sized to raise veal and wandering downtown for a cheap lunch, used to be able to stop by for a glimpse of the other side? "Those are the people who are going to lose out," Peck says simply. "It's unfortunate, but that's the way that it is."

With the demise of the single-use gallery, another type of venue is emerging: those stores that stock fine art as well as silk scarves, hand-thrown pots, beet-dyed rugs, or high-end stereo equipment. Ron Higgins manages one such establishment, Sebastopol's Quicksilver Mine Company, luring customers in with high-quality crafts in the front room, and offering a gallery space in the back.

"The economy is still quite tight," Higgins says. "People just simply don't have the money yet to come out and buy art. And with Congress not in support of refunding the NEA, and pulling art programs out of schools, that [sensibility] just trickles down. People here are just not as focused on art as, say, the Europeans are, and on the value that it plays in everybody's lives. That's why we [Higgins and owner Khysie Horn] have the store to fall back on. We've often said that the gallery doesn't support the store, the store supports the gallery.

"And maybe," he says slowly, "artists have to begin to come up with something at a little bit less value, that people can actually walk away with."

Abstract artist Susan "Sam" Wolcott doesn't really give a damn if her patrons walk away with anything. She'd just like them to walk in. Maintaining a gallery space, The Painter's Eye, out in the countrified air of the Petaluma outskirts, Wolcott hosts exhibitions several times a year that showcase just the kind of challenging work not much seen in these here parts.

"I kind of get the feeling that if people are really serious about showing, they find a way to do it," she says. "My experience with galleries is that you're taught and given seminars on how to approach a gallery, as though a gallery is the end-all, and it's not that in the least. You need to keep your own momentum going, and there are many ways to do that, like alternative spaces. There are tons of empty storefronts in downtown [Santa Rosa], and landlords are just sitting there. You approach them and say you want to do a one-month thing, and everybody chips in 100 bucks.

"There are ways to show, plenty of ways."

Wolcott often finds herself in the unfortunate position of holding down two to three jobs at a time just to afford the luxury of her art. Consequently, she finds that she has no choice but to charge artists $300 dollars for the printing and hosting costs of a two-week exhibit.

Plans for a group show at the Painter's Eye recently fell through, leaving Wolcott disheartened about her colleagues. "We tried to get other shows going," she says, "b ut I was really disappointed because artists don't seem to be willing to pay for the space. I got the idea that even artists seem to think that art is free."

Gallery owner Sweetow, who should give self-esteem lessons to artists, freely admits that she is extremely noisy. "I never stop bitching," she laughs.

This brio extends to the state of the arts. She deflects any suggestions that Sonoma County, and Santa Rosa in particular, is unready to accept high-quality work as the norm. "Everybody waits for somebody else to do it, to make it. There are people who are buying. If they'll buy from one place, they'll buy from another. There are so many things that could be done with that community," she says wistfully.

"But it really has to be done at a grassroots level. It's not magic. But that community is ripe."

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From the July 18-24, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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