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Eilertsen named curator at Schulz Museum

What does an educated woman with serious bona fides do when she can do anything she pleases? If you’re Kate Eilertsen, you work for peanuts.

Or Peanuts, more precisely, as in Charlie Brown and the gang. Eilertsen is the new chief curator at the Charles M. Schulz Museum, and spends 40 hours a week with Schulz’s beloved, hapless, angst-ridden comic creations.

“I’ve always loved the Peanuts comic strip and have admired Charles M. Schulz for his ability to draw and write about the human characteristics that everyone can relate to and laugh with,” Eilertsen said. “The self-effacing and relatable Charlie Brown, the feminist Lucy, Linus, the insecurity-filled little brother and, of course Snoopy—who not only has a fantasy-filled dog house but is also the fearless Red Baron and everyone’s best friend.”

Eilertsen and the late cartoonist also share common roots – both being from Minnesota, with Norwegian heritage.

“I feel like I really have an in-depth understanding of where he was coming from,” says Eilertsen.

Before teaming up with the Peanuts gang, Eilertsen was executive director of the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, responsible for bringing major players from the art world to Sonoma. In her six-year tenure with SVMA, Eilertsen staged exhibitions by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William T. Wiley, Richard Diebenkorn, Roger Shimomura and Eleanor Coppola, heavy hitters who helped elevate SVMA’s profile.

Eilsertsen lives by a Go-Big-Or-Go-Home playbook, an over-achiever habituated to bold strokes: magna cum laude, a first job at NYC’s Met, Director of Visual Arts at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

Along the way there were academic gigs, too: Harvard, California College of the Arts, and – most recently – Sonoma State University, where a colleague told her about the open position at the Schulz.

“I had never been up here before,” Eilertsen admitted.

She’s one of the few.

Last year, more than 100,000 people visited the Charles M. Schulz Museum. It’s the number-one tourist destination in Sonoma County. And not just for children.

“Adults are the target audience,” Eilertsen said. “Although it is clear that children love it, too.”

The Schulz is enormous, a behemoth dedicated to contemplation of all things Peanuts. Eilertsen oversees a staff of seven, and a total of 27 people are employed by the museum full-time. There’s a satellite Schulz Museum in Tokyo, which logged more than 750,000 visitors last year. Peanuts exhibitions travel all over the U.S., and are planned next year for London, China and Korea.

The switch from the hallowed halls of fine art to the pop art of Charles M. Schulz may seem incongruous for a person with Eilertsen’s pedigree: The distance between self-importance and self-effacement seems vast. But imagination, whatever the form, is foundational for all artistic expression.

“Art is supposed to make you think about things you otherwise wouldn’t,” said Eilertsen. “Its job is to challenge, provoke and inspire. There is something universal about Schulz’s strips that capture the insecurity and humor of human nature.”

And who doesn’t relate to those prototypical Charlie Brown moments? Unrequited love, daily disappointments, the complications and joys of friendships? The narrative arc of Schulz’s work is encyclopedic, encompassing the vast cosmology of human experience. Charlie Brown and his gang might not be – strictly speaking – optimists, but they recognize the limitless promise contained in a new day.

Eilertsen is on the cusp of a new day herself, in the midst of a challenge she likely didn’t expect. A seasoned professional, she’s in with both feet, already looking to make a mark.

“I hope to bring Schulz’s values to a contemporary audience, things like work ethic, feminism, generosity and respect for the written word. I get to focus on quality content,” she said. After years spent splitting her attention between administration of art and the art itself, Eilertsen is unfettered as never before. “It’s a dream come true!”

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.