Second Wind

‘Running Fence’ runs again

By Gretchen Giles

THIS IS the story of how more than 2 million square feet of silky, white air-bag fabric ran into the ocean. A tale of how a whole generation of residents came together to argue and then agree about art. A vision that took five years to erect, yet was seen for only 14 days. Divisive, lengthy, and exhausting–it’s curiously mimicking itself through a new tale of community.

Formally known as Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, 1972-1976, this sinuous run of shimmering white nylon snaked from Cotati to the Pacific, caught the sun, gave music to the wind, and defined the land.

It also dramatically changed many lives. The well-documented instance of Freestone resident and informal town mayor Tom Golden springs naturally to mind.

Then in his mid-50s, Golden became an ardent supporter of and manual laborer on Running Fence and provided his home as ad hoc headquarters to Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the globe-trotting husband-and-wife artistic team that created Fence.

Little did Golden know then that he was to gain a new family in the controversial couple, become the single largest private collector of their work in the United States, start a new career as project director and liaison on several of their projects, and make a major contribution to a new life for the Sonoma County Museum in Santa Rosa.

“I’ve had such a wonderful life,” Golden says with unfeigned satisfaction in the well-filled home he shares with partner, Jim Kidder. “Christo and Jeanne-Claude often say that they do these projects for themselves and their friends. They’re free for everyone to see, and their work is of joy and beauty; they have no purpose whatsoever. And I think that it’s quite a privilege to be able to assist in any of [their] projects.”

A Highway Runs Through It: The history of the ‘Running Fence’ project.

A Guided Tour: Complete schedule of upcoming Christo-related arts events.

Born on Jan. 8, 1921, Golden now possesses many lithographs and other works from Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s studio numbered 8 for his day of birth. His collection began when he refused payment for his work hooking the Fence (there are no volunteers on these projects), requesting studio credit instead. Now 80 and establishing a legacy, he has donated his collection of more than 70 pieces to the Sonoma County Museum; his home and its entire contents will follow posthumously.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Running Fence project, the SCM has made the ambitious decision to exhibit Golden’s collection in four different venues this autumn. The project also features a musical tribute from the Santa Rosa Symphony, a traveling display for middle-school students and educators, and a staged reading of an original play from Sonoma County Repertory Theatre, commissioned just for the occasion.

And just maybe, if Christo and Jeanne-Claude could bring together as many disparate factions as clashed on Running Fence, so can the SCM.

“Very little of our Running Fence–only three pieces–is in Tom Golden’s collection,” says Jeanne-Claude by phone. “It has little to do with the Running Fence.”

“Even if Sonoma County residents know only about the Fence,” unknowingly counters Satri Pencak, visual arts program manager for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts, one of the participating venues, “it will be exciting to see the projects that Christo and Jeanne-Claude did before and after it.”

Titled “Running Fence @ 25,” this far-reaching interdisciplinary exhibit is the “kick start,” according to SCM board president Kevin Konicek, to the “envisioning” process that the SCM will do to envision, for example, sprawling down a full city block and growing well beyond its current means as a small historical repository. And all of this without a museum director.

Outgoing SCM acting director Marlene Ballaine says, “We’re a county museum, not the Santa Rosa museum. Having the [Tom Golden collection] come to us when it did was perfect because it was an opportunity for the museum to put this “envisioning” process together. This is a great start.”

“It’s like we’re a $35 million start-up,” explains Konicek, who is leading the search to fill the director’s chair. “And we’re in the business of experience.” Konicek hopes that the Golden collection will underscore the SCM’s new commitment to “every form of human experience, as long as we tell the story of our culture.”

Sonoma Museum of Visual Art director Gay Shelton is curating the multivenue exhibit, and she’s well in tune. “I wanted to approach this as a cultural anthropologist,” she says, preparing to rhetorically ask, “How did [Running Fence] enter the culture of Sonoma County?”

To that end, Shelton has taken “70 pieces that [she] wanted to put 100 different places,” and instead confined herself to a sober four: her own museum, the new University Library Art Gallery in the Schulz Information Center at Sonoma State, the Sonoma County Museum, and the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.

With area arts groups often scrambling after the same cash or working with fierce independence from one another, “Running Fence @ 25” is a unique undertaking with enormous challenges, owing to scheduling, funding, and orchestration. In fact, no one’s ever tried to do anything like this here before.

“I love the whole idea of collaborative projects in the county,” Shelton says. “One of the great joys has been getting to know other spaces in the county. I’m going to learn from them and they’re going to learn from us. It’s like being a spy with good intentions.

“This,” she stresses of the collective exhibit, “is an initial sign of innovation and life, and we should all watch.”

From the August 23-29, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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