When Diane Evans became executive director of the Sonoma County Museum, things weren’t looking good.
Pegged as too artsy for history buffs and too historic for art buffs, the nonprofit museum was struggling to find its identity. Located in a historic post office building in downtown Santa Rosa, the museum was set to expand, but it wasn’t until 2013, when the next-door tenants moved out, that ground was broken to turn a former carpet warehouse into a modern museum with two distinct identities side-by-side.
“My goal was to strengthen everything, and then split [it] apart,” says Evans.
As Evans’ plans take shape, the Sonoma County Museum is renaming itself the Museums of Sonoma County. In addition to the original museum, now the History Museum of Sonoma County, the new Art Museum of Sonoma County debuts this weekend with a stellar collection of contemporary prints on exhibit. “Andy Warhol to Kara Walker: Picturing the Iconic” brings together big names and diverse works, and the museum is throwing a lavish “Studio 54” opening party on Saturday,
April 11, to celebrate.
The warehouse needed plenty of structural work, but the reconstructed space now boasts a modern, sleek and open gallery with 16-foot-tall walls and 20-foot-high ceilings. Clean surfaces and skylights add to the expansive ambiance. The room still carries some of its warehouse feel, including a giant glass roll-up door.
Evans makes the connection between the modern aesthetic of the space and the desire to do a contemporary show. “I knew I wanted a Warhol,” she says. “I didn’t want to do a strictly pop art show—that was too limiting—so I came up with ‘Picturing the Iconic,’ which could mean anything treated in an iconic way.”
It was after a chance meeting between a museum board member and philanthropic art collector Jordan Schnitzer that the idea came into focus. Schnitzer’s foundation includes a collection that’s 8,000 pieces strong which he openly lends for exhibitions around the country.
“They were very gracious to work with,” says Evans.
The idea was to bring in artists with name recognition and artists who appeal to a wide variety of visitors, and by that measure “Picturing the Iconic” is a success. The show features more than 90 pieces, including Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup I, and works by Kara Walker, Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein, Lorna Simpson and Shepard Fairey.
“We need an art museum in this city,” says Evans. “And we have an art collection that is a combination of historic and contemporary work that we’ve never been able to show. Our collection will be regional, but our exhibit program will be national and international.”
Phase two of the new art museum will take the front area of the warehouse and turn it into another 15,000-square-foot space for exhibitions, offices and more. Additionally, the History Museum of Sonoma County is set to re-open in 2016.