YOUNTVILLE, CALIF.—Every time my husband, Kevin, and I visit the Napa Valley, we leave with a newfound appreciation for the local arts: the art of wine making, the art of wine country cuisine, the art of wine-and-food pairing.
With so many temptations, we've never put down our wine glasses long enough to appreciate the other local achievement: the fine arts.
"The arts have always been here, only a little hidden," says Michelle Williams, executive director of the Arts Council of Napa Valley. "We have fantastic talent and organizations, but people just haven't known where to find them. . . . So we're trying to bring the arts to the forefront of people's minds and expand our offerings."
The real trick is getting tourists like us (read: wine fanatics) into these public art spaces, museums, galleries and art-filled wineries. Many established nonprofit institutions, including the Napa Valley Museum in Yountville and the Di Rosa Preserve in the town of Napa, are regular stops for locals and schoolchildren. But they receive only a small part of the more than 4.5 million annual regional visitors. (The museum's average annual attendance is 12,000.)
For local arts advocates, it's time for a change. Two years ago, Williams and a handful of Arts Council board members formed the Public Art Committee to address the absence of a public-art plan for Napa County. After studying the cultural plans of similar-sized cities nationwide, the committee received approval in January for its Community Cultural Plan for Napa County, a four-year public-art plan that will serve as a road map for promoting and expanding the arts.
It's a laudable victory. But with county funding approval still pending (a proposed "percent-for-art" ordinance would allocate 1% of new public or private construction costs to public-arts programming), it probably will be several years before its effects on cultural tourism, including an arts-marketing campaign aimed at tourists, are seen.
Until then, the best approach for finding the county's hidden -- and not-so-hidden -- art gems is not unlike the best tactic for discovering a little-known winery: Ask the locals.
"We're really a regional museum with a clear mission to provide regional art and explore the environment and history of the valley in ways that interest the local community," says Ann Mosher, the Napa Valley Museum's interim executive director. "But we also have a caveat to provide a window to the world for residents, to give them the opportunity to see art they might not otherwise."
This year, that caveat is the traveling exhibition "The Art Books of Henri Matisse," a display of original illustrations and text from four of the artist's books. Historically, exhibitions of works by pop-culture artists such as Matisse often result in blockbuster turnouts, even at small institutions.
Luring those millions of wine country tourists to the recently renovated Yountville museum is a challenge, even with exhibitions by big-name artists. Mosher hopes this year's third annual Festival del Sole, a summer music fest that brings Joshua Bell, André Watts and other classical performers to town, will attract Matisse fans. Many concerts take place at the Lincoln Theater, across the street from the museum.
"The pre-concert wine receptions at the museum get them in the door to see the art," says Mosher.
Where are all the people?
Across the valley at the Di Rosa Preserve, Kevin and I expected a packed house. It was a glorious sunny afternoon, an excellent day to explore this unusual 217-acre nature preserve with more than 2,000 indoor and outdoor works by a range of Bay Area artists, including Robert Arneson, Lewis deSoto and Peter Voulkos.
But the property was empty, save the resident peacocks fanning their feathers as we passed. So we hopped on the open-air bus and enjoyed a private two-hour "discovery" tour, content to spend a little time inside the mind of eccentric former owner and avid collector Rene di Rosa before returning to the tasting rooms.
The tug for wine country tourists isn't limited to nonprofit arts organizations.
"People are up here on a wine country vacation for that gourmet experience," says Oliver Caldwell, co-owner of private galleries in San Francisco, New York and the year-old Caldwell Snyder Gallery in downtown St. Helena. "They're not looking for fine art in this tiny [agricultural] town of 3,000 people. . . . Why do you think I have those metal horses in the window?"
The brightly colored, life-size scrap-metal horses by artist Doug Owen are the reason Kevin and I ventured inside. Caldwell also turns to live music to bring in the crowds. An early-May charity fundraiser and gallery reception for Rusty Wolfe, a Nashville artist and former songwriter for Johnny Cash, will include a live music performance by the artist and Caldwell's JumpStart classic rock band.
"Hey, if you rock out, people will come," Caldwell says.