The di Rosa art collection is near and dear to my heart. I worked at the “preserve” starting in 2003 with Rene di Rosa and a small staff (and the peacocks). Before I left in 2012, I became familiar with Bay Area post-World War II art— and I witnessed many efforts by the staff, board and volunteers to make Rene di Rosa’s dream of a cutting-edge artistic outpost in the Carneros hills a reality.
Various directors have adopted Rene’s dream and pushed the organization forward, slowly gaining more access for visitors and building a dedicated community of volunteers and members. In 2017, di Rosa director Robert Sain and curator Amy Owen launched an ambitious exhibition program highlighting collection artists and more contemporary artist activists.
Delayed by the 2017 wildfires the two-part exhibition “Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times” revealed the new configuration of the main gallery and the new name: di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art.
Following that was an exhibition of works by Viola Frey spanning her 50-year career in drawings, paintings and larger-than-life ceramic sculptures. That show ended in December 2019. After that, things got confusing.
The gates have been closed to the museum through 2020 due to COVID-19. Some controversy has encircled the campus around decisions to remove and sell works from the collection (more about that later) and director Robert Sain announced his departure at the end of April.
But behind the scenes, the board and staff have been working to sustain the organization by offering online content such as lectures and art lessons to engage the public remotely.
Also, in the works is a new exhibition titled “The Incorrect Museum: Vignettes from the di Rosa Collection,” curated by Kate Eilertsen, who initially came on board as acting director of curatorial affairs. After a few months, the board came to recognize Eilertsen’s vast professional experience and has recently announced that she will be acting executive director, effective immediately.
I was thrilled to hear the news as I have worked at many of the same intuitions as Kate and have long admired her passion for the local art scene. Eilertsen has worked in the art world for many years as an arts advocate, curator, educator and museum director. She began her museum work at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, then she moved to Boston where she opened a new museum for Harvard University. She next moved to San Francisco where she was the director of Intersection for the Arts, Museum of Craft and Folk Art and acting director of visual arts for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. She has also served as executive director for the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art and taught at the California College of Arts, San Francisco Art Institute and Sonoma State University.
We discussed her new appointment. I am excited to see the new interactive and ambitious exhibition she is working on.
Kate grew up in Minneapolis and has lived in New York City, Boston and San Francisco before settling in Sonoma. She started her career in the art world at one of the most established institutions in the country, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. How did she decide to pursue a career in arts administration?
“I have always loved art as a way of inspiring new ways of thinking, challenging the traditional, and sometimes, simply providing something beautiful to look at,” she said. “As an undergraduate I majored in studio arts. I soon realized that it wasn’t going to be easy to make a living as an artist, so I turned to the next best thing—surrounding myself with interesting art. I was fortunate to get that job at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City and my love of art has never wavered.”
After moving to California, Kate went back to school to earn an education credential at San Francisco State (she has a Master of Arts from Hunter College in New York). She explained how teaching and curating are closely related.
“I believe that good curating is good teaching. By providing a well-researched, thoughtful and careful selection of artworks that support an idea, you can teach people about things they might not ever have been interested in,” she said. “I went into education because I thought, and still do, that most schools don’t do a good job of teaching creativity, inspiration, independent thinking and personal expression. I now believe that museums have a critical job of filling some of those holes and helping people of all ages, enjoy creativity.”
Kate said the di Rosa collection has potential to teach us about often overlooked art movements. “Di Rosa’s collection is so interesting because it is the largest collection of post-World War II Northern California art and it was such an important and fascinating time in the art world,” she said. “Rene was having such a great time collecting interesting artists, many of whom became friends. The collection itself tells a million stories. I look forward to unraveling those stories and making it fun for visitors to see the collection in a new, and hopefully fun, way.”
The first exhibition she is curating will be “The Incorrect Museum: Vignettes from the di Rosa Collection,” opening on Jan. 23, 2021. It will explore various regional art movements by inviting visitors to step into vignettes that illustrate the Bay Area’s distinctive artistic legacy like William Wiley’s Dude Ranch dada studio.
Another vignette will recreate Peter Voulkos’ “pot palace,” which was a room in the basement of the Berkeley Art Museum where Peter Voulkos, Jim Melchert, Stephen deStaebler and others sat around after class to drink whiskey and talk about art.
Eilertsen recalls a specific memory of seeing Voulkos making art. “I saw Peter Voulkos throw a pot when I was in eighth grade in rural Minnesota and I’ll never forget it. After he finished this large vessel, he took the dead cigar from his mouth and stuck it in the wet pot. I loved that, and only after I moved to California did I learn more about him and figured out why I was so inspired with that demonstration.”
For Kate, the mission she is on is personal. As a resident of Sonoma, she wants the show to highlight what was unique about the scene that developed in Northern California in the post-war period. The region is often dismissed in the history of modern American art, but it has a distinct purpose and influence on all of the art that came after it.
When I asked her about protecting this legacy and the controversial decision to reduce the holdings of the collection, about 1,600 works, she replied confidently that they are “committed to maintaining a collection that reflects the spirit and interests of Rene and Veronica.”
She added, “Work on collection refinement is ongoing and is proceeding at a slow and careful pace. We made a small group of works (15) available for sale over the past year and have had some success. Some of those works were slated for sale at public auctions this spring and summer, most of which have either been postponed or cancelled.”
Of those 15, 10 works have been placed through auction houses, galleries and private sales. The artists or their estates have been made aware of the sales.
Kate is feeling a renewed energy and sense of optimism bubbling up at the organization. She’d like to focus of strengthening relationships that di Rosa has with community organizations such as Boys and Girls Club of Napa Valley, Sonoma Community Center, La Luz Center and Nimbus Arts. A partnership with the California College of the Arts’s Curatorial Practice Program, which will mutually benefit the di Rosa collection and the graduate students. In 2021, rotating exhibitions with contemporary artists outside of the collection (but relating to it) will return to Gallery 1.
Looking forward to the future, I had one last question. 2020 has been a year of crisis and complications for many cultural institutions, so what is the most critical element of recovery that cultural institutions will have to address in 2021?
“Books will be written about this,” she said. “All of us in the museum world are trying to figure it out. Clearly it has to be a combination of technology and accessibility. When I was in art school, I loved going to a museum because it gave me an opportunity to sit in a quiet room that was filled with art and meditate. I miss that and hope we’re able to preserve that experience as part of the future of museums.”
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