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Jason Walsh: Sonoma museum’s uncanny ‘Valley’

“Museums should be places where you raise questions, not just show stuff,” said William Thorsell, former president of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

Thorsell, of course, was speaking to the provocative power of art. But it’s a sentiment that hits close to home this week in Sonoma, as the membership of the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art meets on Monday in what is possibly its most anticipated members vote since the art center’s founding 20 years ago.

The vote is really a question. And, on paper, it’s a simple one: Should the museum change its name to the Sonoma Museum of Art?

Dropping “Valley” from the museum’s title is no mere matter of onomatological concision. Rather, it brings to bear a multitude of issues – the same issues that are not only at the heart of the debate over the identity of the museum, but over the identity of Sonoma itself. Whose museum is it? Who does the museum serve? And who decides the answers to those first two questions?

Swap the word “museum” for “Sonoma” in those questions and you’ve described the time-honored struggle over “community character” with which Sonoma has grappled for years.

And whether one buys the argument that an imbroglio over the fate of one-out-of-five words in the museum’s signage is really a microcosm of the battle for the future of Sonoma itself – or not – there’s no denying one key thing:

Some museum members are pissed.

Or, as a museum board member put it in an email to the Index-Tribune: “The objectors are ‘burning down the museum in order to save it.’”

The recommendation to strike “Valley” from the museum’s name wasn’t supposed to be that big a deal.

Last year, in anticipation of SVMA’s upcoming 20th anniversary, museum officials hired consultant Gail Anderson and Associates to conduct a wide-ranging analysis of the art center’s operations. According to the museum, the firm interviewed dozens of stakeholders – from community members and city leaders to museum staff and volunteers. And, yes, she queried local tourism officials, as well.

What Anderson found, in the words of board member Ken Wornick, was “unsettling.” According to an op-ed Wornick submitted to the I-T earlier this month, Anderson’s research showed that, “apart from a modest group of museum supporters, most people did not know the museum even existed. Nor could they identify the name of the museum.”

And thus the board developed a long-term strategic plan to update the museum’s website, collateral material, building frontage and logo. It would be a complete re-envisioning of the museum’s brand and its audience – from Santa Rosa, Marin, San Francisco and beyond. And that included a new, sans-Valley name.

But to many longtime supporters of the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, it wasn’t simply a dis to everyone outside the 2-plus square miles of Sonoma proper – it was a secession from the union.

Founding member Jim Callahan, a renowned local sculptor whose “Vallejo statue” was installed on the Plaza to much fanfare (and tourist photos) last year, was among the first and loudest to cry foul.

“If no one knows my name, changing it from Jim to Bob won’t make me famous,” mocked Callahan in a letter to the Index-Tribune. He described “attempting to disown the Valley” as a big mistake.

And other prominent artists soon joined his chorus; a signature drive to oppose the change was launched; and the once fraternal community of artists and benefactors was staunchly divided.

For its part, the intention of the museum’s rebranding appears laudable (if clunkily pitched): to further the reach of the museum. They’re trying to strengthen SVMA’s reputation – which would, presumably, draw a greater audience and an even greater level of exhibiting artists. After all, to bring the highest quality of works possible to Sonoma is its core mission.

But, to echo the critics’ rebuttal: Why would blowing off the “Valley” achieve that goal?

Well, on the one hand, when one thinks of our wine country neighbors to the east, does one think of Napa, or the Napa Valley? How about Sacramento, or Sacramento Valley? Do we book campsites at Yosemite, or Yosemite Valley?

From a marketing perspective, and probably from the perspective of visitors from outside a region, you get one word. And it ain’t “Valley.”

On the other hand, consider the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau – an organization that looks as closely at branding as any in the 95476 zip code. “Valley” is definitely part of the “experience” it wants to offer.

The museum membership will have to choose: marketing wide and far, or local inclusion? Naming your baby is a big decision.

We at the Index-Tribune aren’t members of the SMVA, and we’re hesitant to interpose upon the deliberations of a member-run nonprofit. In other words, we’re not taking sides.

But we are encouraged by the tenacity of the debate and the impress of the discussion.

In a time when discourse seems to have bottomed; in an era in which dialogue has debased itself to the levels of name calling and subterfuge – Sonoma labors over the future of a place of intellectual provocation and thought: its museum of art.

There’s hope yet.

Choose the name wisely, Sonoma Valley. It’s your baby.

Email Jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.