Nancy Garden is the founder and, for nearly three decades, the artistic director of the White Barn, the small rustic performance venue on her family’s property in St. Helena.
Garden, who is an accomplished pianist, recalls the local performing arts scene when she and her husband relocated from the Midwest 40 years ago. “There wasn’t much happening and I suppose that’s why I stepped in,” she said. “We moved here from Columbus, Ohio, where I’d been very active in the church and in music circles.
“When we came out here, I expected the churches to be vibrant and music abounding. Well, that wasn’t the case at all. We had the Napa Valley Symphony, which was not a professional orchestra, and Dreamweavers, which is now the Napa Valley Playhouse, and that was it. Nothing else, it was just amazing to me.”
In the mid-1970s, the Gardens refurbished a white 19th-century carriage house on the lower portion of their property, just off the west end of Sulfur Springs Avenue. It would be dubbed the White Barn. “I decided I had to do something with it other than have it as an entertaining place for my kids, some of whom were in college and enjoying having parties there,” she said.
“In 1985, I decided to try performances. I had three lined up and I got quite a demanding note from the county saying that I was in an agriculture watershed and performances weren’t allowed. They said that if you continue to do this, for every performance you put on, we will charge you a thousand dollars. Well, that was ridiculous, I couldn’t possibly do that.”
Garden went into action with the county supervisors, packing the chamber with friends and music lovers, and leveraging the fact that one of the elected officials, her friend, Jay Goetting, was a fine musician. When one of the other supervisors said, “Well, what if everybody with a barn wanted to make it into a performing arts space,” Goetting replied, “That would be heaven.”
Garden won the day. She did have to get county approval, performance by performance, but was charged only a nominal fee. She is still required to do so, though now the supervisors routinely approve a full season at a time.
For 29 years, Garden has presented music, dance, comedy, drama and children’s shows in the 72-seat loft of the barn. Her programming heavily favors local talent and subsidizes local charities. “All of the proceeds of the concerts go to charitable organizations,” she said. “I think we’re the only arts-oriented organization in the valley that does that. Over the life of the program we’ve donated about $400,000 to charitable organizations.
“The White Barn board is very involved in deciding who will be the beneficiaries of the performances. Members of community organizations come and make presentations to the board, and that is usually a deciding factor. We’re not getting groups that are being funded by the Napa Valley Wine Auction or Community Projects or a foundation because they give large amounts. This is mostly for smaller organizations.”
To sustain itself, the program is heavily dependent on donated time from family, board members and the agencies that benefit from the performances. “My son, David Jr., does all the lighting and gets the stage set ready,” Garden said. “Jenny (one of her daughters) is very involved with seeing that the hostesses get there on time and serve the wine properly. And she also does all of my graphics for my postcards and for my solicitation letters.
“The hostesses are usually board members, and we ask the organization that is benefiting to provide one or two people to help out. There’s a big element of volunteerism, and we are trying to broaden our base of volunteers beyond the board.”
These days, Garden is thinking about the long-term future of the White Barn. “I would love to find someone who is so passionate about music that they would like to step in and do my job,” she said. “I just had my 82nd birthday. I love it and yet it’s time to train somebody else. The board is now quite cohesive and ready to do what is required. I can’t ask Jenny and my kids because they’ve done so much. It would be wonderful for somebody to take it on.”
“I am not the White Barn,” she added. “That’s what people have come to think, ‘Oh, if Nancy wasn’t there, maybe it wouldn’t fly.’ It could.”
See TheWhiteBarn.org for more information and the 2014 events calendar.