You Just Dream — They’ll Figure Out How To Do It!

February 1, 2012  |   Feature,   World
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Sonoma Valley, California is home to many notable private art collections, some of which are now open to the public. One of the most ambitious belongs to Nancy and Steven Oliver, a construction company magnate who turned a former sheep ranch into an art complex that called Oliver Ranch. Oliver Ranch is a remarkable place.

The Olivers commissioned artists like Bill Fontana and Bruce Nauman to create installations specifically for the 100-acre ranch. Nauman’s project, for example, is a quarter-mile-long concrete staircase that traverses grassy meadows and leads to the stone house.

Nauman's staircase sculpture at Oliver Ranch is a response to the physical contours of the land it crosses. Though all the treads are exactly the same size, 30 inches square, every riser is different and measures the land's changing contours every 30 inches for the length of the staircase, almost a 1/4 of a mile. The smallest step is 3/8 of an inch; the largest step is 17 inches. In classic Nauman fashion, about the time you want to look at the view, you need to focus on your feet or you may fall because of the changes in step height.

“I tell them: you just dream, we’ll figure out how to do it,” said Steven Oliver, who has a fleet of bulldozers and cranes at his disposal. To install a 245-ton Richard Serra sculpture, he transported a crane from Arizona because California didn’t have one large enough to handle the job. He also reinforced three bridges en route.

Oliver Ranch Installation — Richard Serra, "Snake Eyes and Boxcars", 1990-1993 (Six pairs of forged hyper-dense corten steel blocks)

Located in the heart of Sonoma County, California, Oliver Ranch is home to remarkable site-specific installations. For example, Ann Hamilton’s tower is where commissioned dance, poetry, theatre, and music performances take place. The picturesque property was originally bought by the Olivers [who explain with a smile] to graze a few extra sheep from the their daughter’s “4-H project gone bad.” The ranch’s evolution from exiled sheep quarters to world-renowned sculpture ranch was gradual and organic, a natural convergence of the Oliver Family’s longstanding passion for art and deep connection to the land.

Oliver Ranch Installation — Ann Hamilton, "The tower designed by Ann Hamilton for the Oliver Ranch, Geyserville, CA", 2003-2007 (Cast concrete tower performance space). This tower, designed for the Oliver Ranch, was the realization of the artist's desire to create a work of performance of her own design, a solid but living conduit for an ever-changing range of sensory projects and performances. The tower is Hamilton's first permanent installation anywhere in the world. It took 3-1/2 years to complete, after 14 years of discussion and design.
The Tower is a unique, acoustic environment and a new type of entertainment space defined by two staircases built in a double helix form. One entrance and staircase is for the audience and the other is for the performers. Each staircase is composed of 128 steps that provides seating for the audience. Several openings in the wall allow the body to inhabit the thickness of the wall while in repose. As such, the audience staircase could seat as many as 150 individuals, however 100-125 is the most comfortable.
Each performance in the tower are made available by the Oliver Ranch Foundation to benefit non-profit organizations.
Left: Meredith Monk, Juice, 1969. Performance view, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1969. Photo: V. Sladon. Right: Meredith Monk, Songs of Ascension, 2008. Performance view, Ann Hamilton’s tower. Photo: Marion Gray.

Guest House: A pair of artists’ studios designed by architect Jim Jennings for the rolling hills of Oliver Ranch. The project was one of two recipients of a 2005 honor award for excellence in architecture from the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

(blue night shot) The studios, shown here at twilight on the Sonoma County ranch of Nancy and Steve Oliver, were conceived as an intervention in the land rather than as a construction on the land. Photo by Tim Griffith

Oliver Ranch is open to organizations that support the visual arts [not individual visitors]. Visits need to be scheduled in advance: weekends from April through May, and from September through October and by appointment — its worth the journey! The Ranch encourages citizens who are curious about the ranch to support their local arts organizations. Non-profit organizations can benefit from a donated tour or a tower performance at the Oliver Ranch. Performing arts organizations or an individual performance artist can create a new site-specific art or performance.