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Di Rosa to sell off majority of its art collection

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1960: Rene di Rosa purchases 465 acres in Carneros

Mid-1960s: diRosa meets emerging artists at U.C. Davis

1983: the di Rosa’s establish a charitable foundation

1986: di Rosa sells 248 acres of grapes to Seagram, retaining 217 for an “Art Park”

1991: Veronica di Rosa dies in a fall

1997: the “di Rosa Preserve” opens to the public

2000: Rene di Rosa forms a nonprofit

2010: Rene dies at age 90

2016: Robert Sain is named executive director of the di Rosa Preserve

2017: the “Preserve” is rebranded as “di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art”

2019: Foundation announces plans to sell 80% of its collection

After 22 years showcasing art from its foundation's expansive collection, the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art is changing course. In a radical departure from its original mission, the Rene and Veronica di Rosa foundation plans to sell off most of its 1,600-piece library.

“The decision to reduce and focus the collection is necessary to keep (the center’s) doors open,” Brenda Mixson, president of the di Rosa board of directors, said in a statement.

Di Rosa Executive Director Robert Sain added, “It’s important that the community understand that this will be a gradual, deliberate process undertaken over time. We will continue to collaborate with the artists of the region… and we look forward to continuing to serve the broadest community possible.”

Collected over six decades by Rene and Veronica di Rosa, the foundation’s large catalogue represents dozens of acclaimed west coast artists. In the mid-1960s, after meeting a cadre of young art professors at U.C. Davis, the di Rosas began building an eclectic collection.

In 1983, they established a foundation and launched plans for an “art park” on their estate off Highway 121 near the Sonoma/Napa county line. Veronica di Rosa, a serious artist in her own right, died in 1991, but Rene carried on with their vision, opening the property to the public in 1997.

In 2000, he established nonprofit entity, then known as di Rosa Preserve, with the intent to exhibit and promote works by artists of Northern California. The di Rosa Foundation served as the primary funder of the nonprofit, lending works from its collection for display and providing modest financial support for general operations.

He continued collecting works from Bay Area artists until his death in 2010, gifting the art collection and the preserve’s 217 acres to the foundation, while engaging the Napa County Land Trust to ensure the property would be “protected in perpetuity.”

But museum operations across the country are in the midst of a pardigm shift, with fewer entities able to maintain large permanent collections.

Defending the current industry trend of “de-accession” – or, selling collected works on the open market – Glenn D. Lowry, director of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art told the New York Times recently that no one benefits when thousands of works of art “are languishing in storage.”

“There is a huge capital cost that has a drag on operations,” conceded Lowry. “But, more importantly, we would be far better off allowing others to have those works of art who might enjoy them.”

Kate Eilertsen, former executive director of the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art (SVMA), agreed that the care and storage of a large body of work is an expensive burden for all collecting museums. But she also acknowledged that the planned sell-off might have disappointed Veronica and Rene. “Isn’t it sad? It’s a very rare collection of Northern California artists,” Eilertsen said.

However, according to another industry professional who preferred not to be named, de-accession is generally more nuanced than the plan laid out by the di Rosa leadership last week. “Usually, it means you are removing a few things from your collection in order to purchase other things. You’re shaping it,” one said. “But what the di Rosa is planning is a game changer for them. They are reinventing themselves. It’s astonishing.”

In spite of that, the di Rosa’s prescient accumulation of William T. Wileys, Roy de Forests and Robert Arnesons will soon move on, perhaps along with the enormous ceramics cast by Viola Frey. The quietly subversive works of Enrique Chagoya may find a new home, and even David Best’s remarkable “Rhinocar” – an Oldsmobile covered with a pelt of found objects – could soon be rolling off toward a new dawn.

1960: Rene di Rosa purchases 465 acres in Carneros

Mid-1960s: diRosa meets emerging artists at U.C. Davis

1983: the di Rosa’s establish a charitable foundation

1986: di Rosa sells 248 acres of grapes to Seagram, retaining 217 for an “Art Park”

1991: Veronica di Rosa dies in a fall

1997: the “di Rosa Preserve” opens to the public

2000: Rene di Rosa forms a nonprofit

2010: Rene dies at age 90

2016: Robert Sain is named executive director of the di Rosa Preserve

2017: the “Preserve” is rebranded as “di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art”

2019: Foundation announces plans to sell 80% of its collection

“Museum leaders are challenging assumptions through a 21st century lens,” said Sain in a press release announcing the news. “We are steadfast in our mission to build our endowment so that we can keep the doors open and continue to present curated exhibitions and provide arts education.”

Ann Trinca, who managed the di Rosa galleries in 2003 and was the marketing and events manager there until 2013, believes that the founders would ultimately understand the change of plan.

“I distinctly remember (Rene) stating that he wanted di Rosa to become an outpost of the contemporary art scene — a destination for artists, curators, patrons and creative thinkers in the North Bay,” said Trinca. “I don’t believe he would have wanted the place to become stale, or struggle for funds. He rejoiced in the discovery of new talent and supported emerging artists who have since become legends.”

Added Trinca: “I think he would want the foundation to continue providing opportunities for the ‘art and place of our time.’”

Sain agrees. “I think he’d be jazzed,” he said of di Rosa. “He was a ‘go for it’ kind of guy. He liked the new, the now and the next. I honestly think he’d be enthusiastic.”

There’s no way to know, in any case. And, as Veronica di Rosa’s son, photographer Jock MacDonald observed, “It’s hard to rule from the grave.”

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.

Note: The description of a source in this story has been edited to better reflect their situation.

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