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Price of Admission

  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Opening a museum has an irresistible allure. Then comes the public. 

When Steve Oliver and his wife, Nancy, commissioned the first of many monumental artworks to grace the landscape of their 100-acre sheep ranch in Sonoma County, Calif., they did not foresee a future where they would admit a bus full of visitors a day, three days a week, to tour the grounds in the spring and fall. “It was never my intent,” Oliver says. “It started rather innocently. Now I think we’re booked on every Saturday and Sunday through the third week of May 2016.”

What became the Oliver Ranch Foundation—an outdoor sculpture museum and performance art venue—was initially created in 1985 for the Olivers’ own pleasure. But four years later, Steve volunteered to head the capital campaign for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and began offering occasional private tours to donors. Word of mouth spread fast, the number of visitors grew, and soon the Olivers created the foundation. This year, Steve estimates that 3,000 to 4,000 visitors will explore the Olivers’ property in the Sonoma wine country to see works by Richard Serra, Judith Shea, Bruce Nauman, Ellen Driscoll, and Martin Puryear. 

So far, guests have behaved admirably. But sharing a beloved collection with the public can be risky. People will gawk at your stuff, sneeze on it, shoot selfies in front of it, and leave grubby fingerprints behind. If you are brave enough to let them actually touch your stuff, they probably will not put it back where it belongs when they are done. A few miscreants will soil it, or break it, or steal it. Perhaps worst of all, almost no one will love your stuff as much as you do. Sharing your collection with the world on a permanent basis also takes something that was a font of joy and transforms it into a font of meetings, lawyers, personnel issues, and paperwork, as well as fund-raisers, fund-raisers, and more fund-raisers.

And yet, thousands of collectors share their treasures with the public periodically, by opening a museum or a less traditional space such as the Olivers’ sculpture ranch. There are 17,500 museums in the United States, according to the American Alliance of Museums in Washington, D.C., ranging from major institutions such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art to small, by-appointment operations like the Museum of Bad Art in Brookline, Mass. “Vision, passion, and commitment are the key ingredients for any museum, but certainly they are if one person gets it going,” says Arthur Wolf, a Las Vegas museum consultant. 

Peter Mullin, the force behind the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, Calif., spent about 10 years visiting museums, taking notes, and contemplating the idea before realizing his vision in 2010. Its exhibitions draw on his collection of nearly 200 automobiles, many of which were made in France in the 1920s and 1930s. Like many museum founders, Mullin has firm ideas on even the small details. “I’ve always resented and resisted cords,” he says. “We don’t have any barriers around the cars. People say I’m crazy to do that. But I have the attitude to trust the public unless proven otherwise.” 

Ken Rendell, founder of the Museum of World War II in Natick, Mass., decries political correctness in historical exhibits—a bane of any discussion of historic events—and wrote bylaws that prohibit presenting opinion or commentary with displays at his museum. “I want people to look at the reality and think,” he says. “I don’t want to tell people how to think—I want them to think.” 

John Hamilton, who closed the Newport Sports Museum in Newport Beach, Calif., in March after 18 years, placed a premium on keeping admission free. “Besides just sitting there and saying, ‘Here’s my stuff, come look at it,’ I wanted to do good with it,” he says. One way he met that goal was by inviting groups of children to hear athletes deliver uplifting messages about staying in school and working hard. Hamilton reckons that about 80,000 kids have gathered under his roof to listen to the Harlem Globetrotters, one-armed pitcher Jim Abbott, and others. 

The Olivers initially required visitors to the Oliver Ranch to donate to an arts group of their choice, and they still request that each nonprofit receive at least $2,000 from a tour. About 10 years ago, after the Make-A-Wish Foundation offered a ranch tour at a fund-raising auction, the Olivers broadened their scope to allow other nonprofits to use the ranch to raise funds. To date, the Oliver Ranch has generated more than $5 million for a wide range of entities. “We didn’t plan it this way,” Steve Oliver says. “It’s just how it’s grown, and we like how it’s grown.” Currently, the Olivers are researching how the ranch can meet the access standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.    

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