Sonoma County Arts Building Boom

Art Attack!

House hunting: Executive director Linda Galletta and development director Mark Morrisette of the Sebastopol Center for the Arts show off the interior of the old lumberyard they hope will soon become the new home of the 11-year-old arts organization.

County arts organizations are laying plans for an ambitious $100 million building boom–but are they painting themselves into a corner

By Patrick Sullivan

THE ARTS are on the move. From Petaluma to Healdsburg, from Occidental to Sonoma, blueprints are being drawn up, money is being raised, and dreams are being born. These visions vary in scope from low key and modest to in-your-face ambitious, but the goals are similar: In more than half a dozen communities in Sonoma County, organizations or individuals are working to either create new facilities for the visual and performing arts or dramatically expand existing ones.

Ground has not yet been broken on any of these projects. But if all goes according to plan, the first decade of the 21st century will bring to the county a world-class concert hall to house the Santa Rosa Symphony at Sonoma State University, a block-long complex of buildings in Santa Rosa to accommodate the Sonoma County Museum, a new building and a 10-fold increase in size for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts, and new arts centers or museums in Occidental, Petaluma, Healdsburg, and Sonoma. And a sizeable performing arts center remains on a wish list of projects called for under a current downtown Santa Rosa renovation plan. The unprecedented scope of these ambitions can be measured by the fact that together the projects carry an estimated price tag of nearly $100 million.

What’s driving this arts-related building boom? Key figures in Sonoma County’s artistic community seem to agree on the main causal factors. Observers point to the booming economy, the recent influx of wealthy newcomers with an appetite for art, and a natural maturation of existing institutions.

But when it comes to the question of what it all means, agreement is harder to find. Some say this sudden explosion of activity is a natural and positive result of the fact that Sonoma County is coming of age, growing wealthier and more passionate about the arts. Others worry that arts organizations may be overreaching in their quest to put up the bricks and mortar.

The go-go ’90s have been good to Sonoma County. The area has enjoyed a six-year economic expansion, rising incomes, and an influx of high-tech startups, largely in the so-called Telecom Valley along Highway 101, that are creating remarkable new pockets of wealth. For example, at Advanced Fibre Communications in Petaluma, more than 80 workers became millionaires after its initial stock offering in 1996. These wealthy newcomers, plus rich retirees from Silicon Valley, are having an impact on the artistic community, according to Gay Shelton, director of the Sonoma Museum of Visual Art, which is itself considering a modest renovation in the next few years.

“These are people who have cut their teeth in more urban areas,” Shelton says. “Part of what draws them here is that they are looking for quality of life, and they’re interested in art, in having the kind of opportunities locally that they can have in big cities.”

It is this population, along with the wine industry and traditional old-money donors (the “mink and manure” set, who made their cash in agriculture), who are being called upon to provide the funding for the new crop of arts projects. Public funding, including money and other support from the cities and county, is also important, but organizers know they can’t count on getting big bucks from government in this age of fiscal austerity.

The million-dollar question, of course, is whether this funding formula can really work for all these projects. Is there enough money to go around? Some say there is, if arts organizations offer compelling projects in an appropriate scale and concentrate on what they each do best.

The key, according to Shelton, is to look at the fundraising process as less of a competition for money and more as a way to start a dialogue in the community about the arts.

“Every time someone asks for money, it’s going to help me, because there’s one more conversation about art going on,” Shelton says. “I refuse to drop into the mentality that there’s not enough to go around. You may not be able to get a particular donor to give, but that’s because the project is not a good fit or not where the donor’s heart is.”

Other observers, however, are more skeptical that the pot of available money is sufficient. Among these skeptics is Barbara Thoulien, curator of the SoFo2 Gallery, a project of the Cultural Arts Council of Sonoma County. Thoulien supports efforts to increase public access to the arts, but when asked to estimate the chance that all these plans will succeed, she is brutally frank.

“A few of us are going to take a dive,” Thoulien says. “There are going to be a lot of changes in the next five years. It’ll be interesting to see if everyone survives.”

Some say that success will depend a great deal on how well the various arts organizations in the county coordinate their efforts. There are such attempts being made, including a series of meetings and facility visits coordinated by Claudia Haskell, director of the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts. However, these bimonthly meetings stopped about eight months ago (though they may resume in the coming year), largely because of the difficulty of bringing all the key people at each institution together in one place. Haskell herself expresses cautious support for the current wave of activity, though she also has some reservations about the scale of some of the projects.

“Everyone is thriving. It’s great,” Haskell says. “The key here is not to expand our facilities beyond our means, to be sure that we’re modeling them on sound economic analysis as well as our inspiration to create.”

Going up: The Sonoma County Museum gets a big makeover in an architect’s plan.

Santa Rosa

Among the most ambitious of this new group of ventures is a plan to transform the quietly charming Sonoma County Museum, which offers both art and history exhibits, into a block-long complex with three new buildings and over 72,000 square feet of floor space.

The project, which carries a price tag of approximately $27 million, would more than triple the size of the existing museum. Among the additions would be a courtyard cafe, classrooms, a 200-seat hall for lectures and performances, and three new large galleries with the high ceilings and lighting necessary to display major traveling exhibits.

This expansion plan, which will proceed in three phases, requires the purchase of the two properties on either side of the historic Old Post Office building on Seventh Street in which the museum is now housed. That building, built in 1909, will undergo renovation but remain intact. Walkway galleries would connect the entire complex. If all goes according to plan, the entire project could be completed in 2004.

An imposing collection of local power-players has lined up to support this project. Financial backers include a long list of businesses organized under the Press Democrat‘s Celebrate 2000 campaign. Local politicians, including Rep. Lynn Woolsey, are working to help the museum find public funding.

But even this list of heavy hitters doesn’t guarantee success. The museum must come up with the cash, acquire the neighboring properties, and, perhaps most important, fill a gaping hole at the top of its staffing roster. Last January, longtime executive director Eric Nelson departed the museum for a new job in Napa. Finding a replacement has been a lengthy process, though the position will be filled in July, according to museum officials.

Despite these challenges, the project is on schedule so far. The newly redesigned permanent historical exhibit, full of high-tech components, will reopen in the late fall. And a portion of the money needed to buy one of the neighboring pieces of property may be appropriated this session by the California Legislature, according to SCM board member Terry Abrams. The money from the state could then be paired with matching funds to make the purchase.

Another challenge, Abrams says, will be forging alliances with other local organizations to ensure that the new museum makes the best use of its space. Among the candidates being considered is the Cultural Arts Council of Sonoma County, with which the museum already collaborates on the annual ARTrails Open-Studio Tour.

“We are exploring the options,” Abrams says. “We’re talking to many different people and groups in the community, and we’re certainly looking for input.”


The Sonoma Valley Museum of Art does not actually exist yet, except on paper, but the institution has already held its first exhibition of art. This past February saw a four-day show of work from the private collection of museum’s advisory board go on display at a former furniture store just off Sonoma Plaza.

Strong and enthusiastic attendance at the exhibit gave the museum’s efforts a boost. But a permanent building to exhibit the visual arts is still proving elusive, according to museum board member Gerry Simmel.

“There are a number of possible locations,” Simmel says. “We’re trying to figure out which would be the best. Then there’s the matter of getting some major fundraising done to pay for it.”

The SMVA was incorporated last summer by local art enthusiasts who want to buy, build, or rent a facility of at least 5,000 square feet, which is the minimum required to accommodate traveling exhibits from such places as the Smithsonian Institution. The proposed museum would also display work in all media by local and national artists.

The effort seems to be attracting increasing support, and the organization now has nearly 500 members. But Simmel estimates that opening the doors will require raising as much as half a million dollars. To do that, the organization plans to hold more exhibits and go on a fundraising offensive. Organizers are looking into securing money from the county government and the Sonoma County Community Foundation.

“Hey, we’ll look at anything,” Simmel says with a laugh.

Sebastopol Center for the Arts

If you stand in the small classroom at the back of the building that houses the Sebastopol Center for the Arts and look out the rear window, you can literally get a glimpse into the future.

Across the parking lot and beyond the movie theater sits the now-empty Diamond Lumber Yard, a one-block compound dominated by an old tin building that may soon be the new home of Sebastopol’s 11-year-old arts organization.

The lumberyard has already been leased to the center at a discounted rate by a supportive landlord. The only remaining obstacle is the large but undisclosed sum of money that must be raised to renovate the site and make way for the future.

As laid out by executive director Linda Galletta and development director Mark Morrisette, the plan is certainly an attractive vision. At present, the center has more arts classes, staff, and exhibitions than its 2,400-square-foot building can comfortably accommodate. Art exhibits must be crowded onto the limited wall space, and many of the center’s performing arts class must take place elsewhere. At 32,000 square feet, the renovated lumberyard building would offer vastly increased space for galleries, studios, classrooms, and even a planned 200-seat music and theater hall. Moreover, it would put the center in an enviable location.

“We have a chance to create a block-long arts center on the city plaza, free and open to the public,” Morrisette says. “It’s phenomenal that this opportunity should come up at the same time that this organization is bursting at the seams.”

But however bright the vision, the project is still in the planning stages, as Galletta is quick to point out. “The process we are in now is figuring out how all these things fit together and what our limitations are,” she says.

The plan has already been revised downward in scope once, after a feasibility study conducted in 1998 determined that the initial proposal to build a brand-new $10 million building would be too large a project. That’s when the lumberyard surfaced as an option.

Galletta and Morrisette prefer not to reveal the estimated cost of the new plan, but they will say that renovating an existing building creates a substantial savings. (Fiscal responsibility is apparently a way of life at the center, which has run in the black every year since it opened.) A Santa Rosa architectural firm has been chosen, and the tentative goal is to break ground on the project in 2000. Construction would then take about 20 months to complete.

“I think each town deserves its own arts scene,”Morrisette says. “It’s our obligation to be responsible and figure out how to make it happen, how to pay for it.”

Michael Amsler

Sonoma State University

The quiet atmosphere at the center of campus might almost convince a casual observer that Sonoma State University is still the sleepy rural school it once truly was. But the peaceful spell is quickly broken by the crush of students as class lets out and by the sight of posters announcing a faculty strike.

Of course, labor problems are far from the only changes brewing at SSU. Indeed, in five years, returning graduates may have a bit of trouble recognizing the place. A $150 million building campaign now under way at the school aims to transform this quiet campus into the crown jewel of the California State University system. Already under construction is a $34 million information and technology center and a new student apartment complex. The university will even get a new main entrance off Rohnert Park Expressway.

The frosting on the campus cake is a 2,000-seat, world-class concert hall that will be the new home of the Santa Rosa Symphony, which is moving there from its longtime base in the Luther Burbank Center. Located on a 45-acre plot of land at the north end of campus, the Center for the Musical Arts will offer a year-round calendar of events ranging from classical music to dance, drama, poetry, and lectures.

This project could cost as much as $47 million, but finding the money doesn’t seem to be a problem. Petaluma telecom giant Don Green kicked things off with a $10 million gift, and other substantial donations have quickly followed. Construction will probably begin in the summer of 2000, and the doors may open in the fall of 2002.

The project is explicitly modeled on the world-famous Tanglewood Music Center in western Massachusetts. The idea is to combine first-rate acoustics with a beautiful natural setting. The concert hall will open to the outside to accommodate huge crowds on the lawn during fair-weather months, and the complex will also include a recording studio and a large lobby where visual art will be displayed.

But the center does have some limitations. It will ring with the sounds of classical music, folk, jazz, and world music, but it’s not a hall for rock and roll or pop. Amplified sound presents a problem because of the special acoustics. “It’s not that you couldn’t do it,” explains Jeff Langley, chairman of the performing arts department. “It’s just that the inside of this hall is like the inside of a violin. The acoustic surfaces are so sensitive that it would be like putting yourself in a feedback loop.”

That’s a significant restriction in a county where musical tastes run more toward Brooks & Dun than Bach and Dvoràk. Even Langley admits that it may be a challenge to develop a larger audience for classical music in Sonoma County. Education and public outreach, he says, will be needed to keep the concert hall full.

Despite the substantial cost of the facility, Langley has little doubt that it will be completed on schedule. He arrived at SSU in 1997, and he says he’s been increasingly impressed by the level of support for the new musical center.

“It’s a mighty project, much bigger than I thought it would be when I first got here,” he says. “But the spirit of cooperation among the huge team of players involved has been amazing, and I think that bodes very well for it becoming a reality.”

Developing vision: Ginny Buccelli is helping plan an arts center in Petaluma.


“Petaluma in general has not been a cultural mecca,” says Alison Marks with a laugh. “There just hasn’t been a lot of support for that kind of thing. But I think as more people come here from other parts of the Bay Area things are changing. There’s a growing interest in making the arts a priority.”

It’s in the hope of accelerating that process that Marks, a local artist, joined forces last summer with collaborator Ginny Buccelli and a handful of other organizers to form the Petaluma Arts Center Project. The goal of the new organization is to establish a place for local artists to work and display their art.

The proposed center would include studios, a gallery, and classrooms for art education. Organizers have already started eyeing a few likely buildings in town: They say they want a site with about 2,000 square feet of space. But none of this, they emphasize, is going to happen anytime soon.

“I have artists coming up to me all the time and saying, ‘When can I get some studio space?'” says Buccelli. “But we’re in the very preliminary stages right now. We’re still running this whole idea out of our homes.”

Most of all, Marks and Buccelli say they want to be sure that they actually have the active support of the town’s artistic community.

“We want to know what the artists actually need,” says Buccelli. “And we also want to know if they are willing to put some time into a project like this.”

To find out, the organizers mailed a survey out to several hundred local artists. The results of the survey, which will play a large role in deciding the future of the project, will be known in the next week or two.

For her part, Marks, whose husband, David Keller, serves on the Petaluma City Council, predicts that the community will actively support the project.

“I think the time is right,” she says. “For years there hasn’t been the support in the community to do something like this, but I think the town has changed. People realize that the arts make Petaluma a richer place to live and a nicer place to raise our families.”


The plan was simple. Lease a dilapidated but historic railroad freight shed located right off the town plaza. Put down a new foundation and renovate the hell out of the place. Then throw open the doors of a new center for the arts. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out as planned. “It’s a project on hold for now,” explains Elizabeth Candelaria, head of the Healdsburg Arts Council.

The problem came to light after the organization brought in Marin architect Mark Cavagnero (who recently redesigned the Rafael Theater) to take a look at the building. He determined that more than $250,000 worth of renovations, mostly seismic retrofitting, would be needed to make the building safe for use. That was more money than the Arts Council, now in its seventh year of operation, could spend.

But Candelaria is a long way from giving up. There’s now a new plan in the works. The building has been chosen by Sonoma County Transit as an intermodal transportation station–a stop for buses and, eventually, trains. Congress has earmarked $2 million to renovate the buildings on the site. The Healdsburg Arts Council, which still has a lease on the freight shed, is hoping to team up with the transit agency to create a dual-use facility where arts and transportation would mingle.

“We think the marriage of the two would be very nice,” says Candelaria. “People could get off a bus and walk around the lobby and see paintings on the wall.”

The idea is not without precedent: Danville and Santa Clara have similar operations. But until the money actually arrives, which could take as much as a year and is not guaranteed, the future of the project is up in the air. A best-case scenario would see the arts center opening in 2001. But Candelaria says that delay may be just as well.

“It gives the Arts Council a little more time to develop our programming and get it up and running,” she says.


A journey into town on the Bohemian Highway means passing under the shadows of towering redwoods, braking to safely take the curves on these rolling hills, and slowing down even more to watch a quail skitter frantically across the road. Small wonder that some people tend to use words like “quaint” and “rustic” to describe this quiet community of 1,200 people.

And rustic is exactly how Doris Murphy likes the place. Murphy and her associates, who include a growing list of local creative types, are hoping to build an arts center in Occidental, a place to showcase the work of local visual and performing artists. But they are also determined, Murphy says, to build a facility that is consistent with this town’s rural character. “In Occidental, it would be a little different,” says Murphy, a longtime resident of the town. “We’re small and we want to stay that way.”

Murphy is president of the grandly named Occidental Center for the Performing and Visual Arts (“It’s quite a mouthful,” she admits), which is a non-profit organization without a home for now, since the building exists only in the minds of its proponents.

But their dreams may be well on the way to becoming a reality written in concrete. Recently, organizers took a big step forward by securing a 25-year lease from the county on a one-acre plot of land directly across from the town’s community center. There, at the corner of Bohemian Highway and Graton Road, the organization hopes to build a 6,000-square-foot building that would offer gallery and performance space to local artists of all kinds, from musicians to painters to actors.

“It’s taken a while to get it off the ground, but now we feel we’re on the way,” Murphy says. “The lease has made us feel really solid.”

But significant obstacles remain. The lease from the county imposes only a nominal rent, but it comes with a tough proviso that will either ensure fast progress on the project or doom it completely. Murphy and her fellow organizers must raise $100,000 in the next year and a half to keep the lease. Ultimately, approximately $1 million must be raised to complete construction and begin funding programs at the center.

Still, Murphy doesn’t seem too worried about finding the money, even though she’s well aware that other arts organizations are launching their own projects. Her equanimity springs in part from the fact that she thinks the Occidental Center for the Visual and Performing Arts will meet an obvious need in the area.

Of course, she also wants to get the doors open in a timely manner, as opposed to what happened at the neighboring Gualala Center for the Arts.

“Fifteen years they worked to get that thing open,” Murphy says. “I don’t have that much time. We want to get this thing up and running soon.”

From the May 20-26, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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