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The Arts

Author: Judith M. Wilson
March, 2018 Issue

Travelers from around the world make Northern California’s Wine Country a coveted destination. Excellent wine is undeniably a powerful lure, but Sonoma and Napa counties have more to offer. Alongside picturesque vineyards, hills and valleys, the arts thrive, too, giving visitors plenty of opportunities to enhance a Wine Country experience and make their stays memorable in more ways than just one. 

Fine art

If vintages and varietals are a visitor’s priorities, pairing wine with fine art is easy because many wineries have collections alongside their tasting rooms. The concept took root in 1970 at Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville, when Margrit Beaver Mondavi opened a 5,000-square-foot gallery, and others subsequently embraced the idea. Today, more than 70 wineries collectively own more than 10,000 works of art, according to a press release sent by Angela Jackson, director of Media Relations, for Visit Napa Valley.
Among them, Mondavi gives guests a chance to view world-class works by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Benjamin Bufano, while Robert Motherwell and Andy Goldsworthy are among the big names in the Hess Art Collection in Napa, which has the valley’s largest collection of contemporary art at a winery. In addition, di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, located on a historic winery estate in the Carneros region, has works by noted artists such as Robert Arneson and Manual Neri in its permanent indoor collection and brightly-colored sculptures outdoors with the natural landscape as a backdrop. Although noted for its collection of work by Bay Area artists, “di Rosa is moving into a more national conversation about art,” says Olivia Dodd, president and chief executive officer of Arts Council Napa Valley.

More than 90 public art installations and a wealth of galleries and private collections give visitors ample opportunities to explore the arts scene at their leisure. On a stroll through downtown Napa, for instance, visitors will discover Napa Art Walk, a collection of large sculptures that changes every two years. “One of the great aspects [of Art Walk] is you have a dozen or more different pieces that you get to find,” says Dodd, adding that it’s a chance to see art up close and interact with it without barriers. “It’s personal, and it’s rich,” she observes. And to make the viewing experience even better, she suggests visitors go to the Napa Valley Welcome Center to find out how to get an app for their phones with artists’ statements and comments about their work.

Napa’s Rail Arts District, a collaboration of the Napa Valley Vine Trail, the Napa Valley Wine Train and members of the local arts community, adds color and excitement to an industrial area of Napa that hasn’t seen much activity until now. It’s the first designated art district in Napa Valley, and it features several huge murals by street artists with an international reputation. It made its debut in early 2017 with Knocking on Heaven’s Door, a 210-foot mural by Betz and Natalia Rad of Poland. The fourth and newest, unveiled in November 2017, is Begin and Continue by Napa artist Mikey Kelly, who transformed a 710-chain link fence into a painting of intersecting lines and waves in seven colors and then added metal silhouettes of walkers, joggers and cyclists who use the Vine Trail. RAD’s public space includes 50 walls for murals and 15 locations for sculpture, so it will ultimately become an outdoor museum, offering a satisfying cultural experience for both visitors and locals.

Outdoor art is also an attraction in Yountville, where more than 40 sculptures by artists with national and international reputations are on display along Yount and Washington streets. Visitors can download a map from the Town of Yountville’s website and start and stop wherever they like or join a docent for a tour.

Sonoma County is similarly blessed with an array of choices. Among them is the Petaluma Arts Center, which occupies a former railroad depot, giving it casual charm, while providing an authentic gallery experience. “It’s the only nonprofit art gallery in our area that offers a professionally-curated, professionally-lit gallery,” says Delfin Vigil, executive director. “It’s a uniquely Petaluma experience. It’s got it in the air; it’s got it in the energy.”

In January, Power of 10: Scaling Up opened to celebrate the center’s 10th anniversary, and it features Charles and Ray Eames’ film, Powers of 10 and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe (1977), which begins with a close-up shot of a man in a park and moves out to the edge of the universe and back again to visualize scale. Sculptor Llisa Demetrios, the Eames’ granddaughter, is curator of the exhibit, which includes works by 10 artists exploring how the smallest to the largest known things connect in the universe. It runs until late March. A youth exhibit, Art Shapes the World, follows in April, and Kinetics: Art in Motion opens in July. “The exhibitions are world-class,” says Vigil. He estimates that it takes 35 to 40 minutes to see them without being rushed. The center will host lectures, poetry slams, film screenings and music. “The Petaluma Arts Center has got the sophistication without the snoot.”

Two major annual events give visitors a chance to mingle with members of the community to see the best local artists have to offer. Art at the Source partners with the Sebastopol Center for the Arts to invite visitors to take a free self-guided tour of artists’ open studios in western Sonoma County during the first two weekends in June. And on the first two weekends in October, Sonoma County Art Trails offers more than 160 open studios throughout the county. “Those two weekends are known outside Sonoma County,” says Birgitt Vaughan, public relations manager for Sonoma County Tourism.

Art walks are popular, and suggests Guerneville’s First Friday Art Walk, when art galleries, tasting rooms and merchants are open, and street performers add to the atmosphere. In addition, the South A Street Arts District in Santa Rosa, more commonly known as SOFA, is home to close to 40 working artists’ studios as well as galleries, and it too offers open studios on the first Friday of each month.

Visitors to Sebastopol can see the junk art of Patrick Amiot and Brigitte Laurent. Amiot creates sculptures using reclaimed materials, such as cars and refrigerators, and Laurent paints them. Their pieces are all over town, but the focus is Florence Ave., which is a veritable outdoor museum. Visitors are welcome to walk along the residential street to admire the sculptures, and they’ll find a little box with pictures of the works and more information. And to see how a repurposed space can foster creativity, art lovers can explore Fulton Crossing Galleries, on River Road northwest of Santa Rosa. “They have converted a chicken slaughterhouse into a gallery,” Vaughan explains, and 15 artists and artisans work there to produce arts and crafts, ranging from glass-blown objects to handmade musical instruments.

Sometimes art appears where visitors least expect it. The Voigt Family Sculpture Foundation has installed a series of sculptures and benches along Foss Creek Pathway, which runs from the Carson Warner Memorial Skate Park to the five-way stop in downtown Healdsburg. People meander along the path, sometimes with children or dogs, and they can sit on one of the benches to take a break, chat and enjoy the art. “That’s a fun one, and you can be outside if the weather is good,” says the foundation’s Cairenn Voigt, who adds that the art is often a surprise for first timers.

Wineries sometimes yield unexpected finds as well. Voigt suggests seeing two large sculptures by Bryan Tedrick, a Glen Ellen artist who created them for Burning Man. The Coyote, a 26-foot tall steel work, is on display at Wilson Winery in Dry Creek Valley, and Lord Snort, a kinetic sculpture of a huge boar that spins on its axis, is at Soda Rock Winery in Alexander Valley.


Museums give visitors a new perspective of Wine Country and its culture that they can’t find anywhere else. Laura Rafaty, executive director of Napa Valley Museum Yountville, finds that Land and People of the Napa Valley, the museum’s permanent history exhibition, which focuses on the area’s geology and the qualities that make it a prime area for viticulture, is popular. “People enjoy that a lot,” she says. Rotating exhibits in the Main Gallery and Spotlight Gallery also attract visitors for their subjects and themes. France is a Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child, is in the midst of an extended run in the Main Gallery in its world premiere. “People are traveling from all over the country to see the Julia Child Exhibit,” says Rafaty. She explains that the goal is to create shows that people can’t necessarily see anywhere else. In addition, the museum is family-friendly, and on the second Saturday of every month, it offers free family-fun activities that are often related to current exhibits.

Other museums have a specific focus. The Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in St. Helena allows visitors to learn about the author’s travels through Napa Valley and see the world’s largest collection of Stevenson material. And in Calistoga, the Sharpsteen Museum looks at the town’s past, with a stagecoach, the simulation of a barn that served as a stopping point for stagecoaches and a working model train. The Wappo, a 30-foot diorama, shows Calistoga when it was a hot springs resort in the 1860s. Currently on display is Out of the Attic, an exhibition of memorabilia from 1937 to the present that commemorates the 80th anniversary of Snow White and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Perhaps the most famous Wine Country museum is the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa. People from around the world find Schulz’s Peanuts characters endearing, and so seeing the largest collection of strips featuring the gang and learning about Schulz and the art of cartooning puts the museum at the top of the must-see list for many visitors. “A lot of people come to see the Charles Schulz Museum,” says Vaughan.


Music in Wine Country ranges from high-caliber performances by internationally acclaimed artists to homegrown fun. The Green Music Center at Sonoma State University is a magnet for visitors. “It’s so well known outside of our borders,” says Vaughan. It includes 1,400-seat Weill Hall, which has a rear wall that opens to seating on the lawn for warm-weather concerts, and Schroeder Hall, with a more intimate environment and seating for 240. Among the artists on the program for 2018, are violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and pianist Lambert Orkis, jazz singer Dianne Reeves and the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, underscoring the diversity and quality of the offerings. For families, Mozart’s Magnificent Voyage, complete with an instrument petting zoo, takes place in April. Sonoma Bach and musicians from the Valley of the Moon Festival will appear at Schroeder Hall.

Local festivals with a more casual vibe include the Russian River Blues Festival, which offers water activities and camping as well as music, and the Country Summer Music Festival for fans of the genre. In addition, the Healdsburg Jazz Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary in June.

Napa is also rich in musical offerings. Festival Napa Valley, formerly Festival del Sole, takes place for 10 days in the summer and includes food, wine, music, dance and theater in more than 60 events throughout the county at a variety of venues. Fans of rock and indie music visit Napa for BottleRock, a three-day celebration of music, food, wine and beer that takes place in the spring. And in Napa Porchfest, musicians make the porches of historic homes their stage for one summer afternoon. “More than 10,000 people descend on downtown Napa,” says Dodd.


Transcendence Theatre Company’s Broadway Under the Stars, brings a taste of the New York stage to Jack London State Historic Park in the summer with a series of four Broadway-inspired events featuring performers from New York City in full-scale productions outdoors. “It’s the perfect Wine Country event all in one,” says Stephan Stubbins, co-executive director who’s also a singer and dancer with a Broadway track record. The activity starts early with live music, food trucks and wine. Spectators can enjoy entertainment next to the vineyards before the show. They can bring their own picnics or purchase from food trucks located at the venue. In addition, wineries offer wine for sale at the venue. “It’s magical to sit right below where Jack London wrote his books. It’s open to the stars and skies with vineyards and powerhouse performances,” says Stubbins. In addition, for every ticket sold, the company gives $5 to help maintain the park. Transcendence Theatre Company also presents The Ladies of Broadway at the Marin Center in San Rafael and at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa in March, featuring Broadway performers Jennifer DiNoia, who recently appeared as Elphaba in Wicked and Kristin Piro, of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Outstanding classical drama is the focus of NapaShakes. “NapaShakes was formed in order to bring world-class theater to Napa Valley,” says artistic director Laura Rafaty (who wears a second hat at Napa Valley Museum Yountville), and it has a national and international following. “We do something when we’re lucky enough to provide something extraordinary,” she adds. According to Rafaty, the goal is to mount live performances by the best actors nationally and internationally, focusing on Shakespeare. Among its noteworthy performances was the world premiere of Measure +Dido at the Green Music Center, with British actor Derek Jacobi in the leading role. NapaShakes also presents shows at the Lincoln Theatre in the Napa Valley Performing Arts Center and the Napa Valley Opera House. NapaShakes also offers screenings of Shakespeare’s plays, which take place at the Cameo Cinema in St. Helena. “Men love our screenings,” says Rafaty.

In addition, the Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park offers live drama, music and dance, and Wine Country is home to several regional theater companies, including 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa, Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma and Lucky Penny Productions in Napa.

Literature and more

Literature and great ideas are the focus of the Sonoma Valley Authors’ Festival, which takes place for the first time in May 2018 at the Lodge at Sonoma Renaissance Resort & Spa. Founders David and Ginny Freeman explain that some people like to travel with a purpose and prefer vacations that enrich them in some way, and providing that experience is their goal. The result is a gathering of leaders in innovation as well as writers talking about a variety of books. Among them are New York Times columnist and author David Brooks, a keynote speaker; Lisa See, author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan; and Nobel Prize-winner Alex Filippenko, astrophysicist and astronomy professor at the University of California Berkeley. “We’re in it to enjoy it and share it with our friends, make new friends and shine a light on all the spectacular aspects of Sonoma Valley,” says David Freeman.

Wine Country offers lovers of the arts something for every taste, and the volume of choices can be overwhelming. Vaughan and Jackson suggest that travelers take advantage of their respective counties’ websites ( and, which provide extensive information and give tips for making the most of a visit. The arts and wine are a natural pairing, and Napa and Sonoma offer the best of both worlds. “Explore,” Dodd advises, “And you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find.”

Novato’s Museums

Novato is just minutes from Sonoma’s Wine Country, and its museums are worth a side trip.

•The Marin Museum of Contemporary Art includes a gallery, 58 artists’ studios and a gift shop. “It’s a good place to visit, because there’s more than one place to go,” says Executive Director Nancy Rehkopf, who explains that if an artist’s door is open, visitors are free to step inside and admire the work. Open studios take place in May and November. MOCA hosts an altered book exhibit, which is a fundraiser, in April, and a special exhibit, Legends of the Bay Area: Norman Oliveira, opens on March 3 and runs through April 22, 2017. Oliveira is credited with being the founder of the Bay Area Figurative Movement, and the display will span 50 years of his career.
11 a.m.-4 p.m., Wed.-Fri.; 11a.m.-5 p.m., Sat. and Sun.
500 Palm Drive, (Hamilton Field) Novato, 415-506-0137

•Hamilton Field History Museum is within walking distance of MOCA, and Rehkopf suggests visiting both. It shows the development of Hamilton Air Field from 1932 to 1975 and includes special exhibits of model airplanes and a link trainer. It also has a collection of oral histories.
Wed, Thurs. and Sat., noon-4 p.m.
555 Hangar Ave. (Hamilton Field), Novato, 415-382-8614

•Marin Museum of the American Indian offers an exhibit of Native American art, interpretive panels from the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and local artifacts.
2200 Novato Blvd. (in Miwok Park), Novato, 415-897-4064

•The Space Station Museum has American, Russian and Soviet space-exploration artifacts on display, and it offers telescope viewing nights.
6-8 p.m., Friday; noon to 4 p.m., Sat. & Sun., April to October
464 Ignacio Blvd., Novato (in Pacheco Plaza), 415-524-3960


Several museums are within walking distance of SMART stops, making the train an easy and fun way to visit them.

North Santa Rosa: Charles M. Schulz Museum and Children’s Museum of Sonoma County.

Petaluma: Petaluma Arts Center

Novato: Marin Museum of Contemporary Art and Hamilton Field History Museum

Arts in April

An appreciation for the arts goes back a long way in Napa Valley. Arts Council Napa Valley, a nonprofit foundation, was formed in 1963 to bring together the arts and cultural community, and its signature annual event, Arts in April, is a month-long celebration of the arts that includes at least 50 events, ranging from live music to art fairs to story telling to drama performances at wineries, museums and galleries throughout the valley. Each of the county’s five cities also hosts a public event in a public setting. “Calistoga will have a big weekend of events, and Yountville will be back with their very successful Art, Sip & Stroll,” says Olivia Dodd. Find out more about Arts in April at




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