Oliver Ranch in California’s Sonoma County is home to one of the most ambitious private collections of site-specific art in the United States. Steven Oliver, founder of the construction firm Oliver & Company, provides selected artists with substantial engineering resources, enabling them to create site-specific artworks that would be difficult to produce anywhere else.
Today, Oliver Ranch showcases sculptural works from contemporary artists Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman, Ann Hamilton, Bill Fontana, and Martin Puryear, among others. Art-Rated toured the one hundred acre site and sat down with Steven Oliver to learn about the origins of Oliver Ranch and his unique approach to collecting art.
Art-Rated: I’ve read that Oliver Ranch started as a sheep ranch. Tell me, what was the ranch’s evolution from sheep to art?
Steven Oliver: Well, Oliver Ranch was a 4-H project gone bad. My daughter loved animals, and she was nine when a couple of crazy cousins of mine gave her two lambs. I was thinking lamb chops and she was thinking pets—but she won. Nine years later, we had eleven sheep, six goats, rabbits, and patient neighbors in the city, so we purchased land in the country. It was a working sheep ranch for twenty-two years. The ranch was a weekend place for the kids to play. Art was never part of the ranch originally.
AR: So where was art in your life at that time?
SO: My wife and I were very traditional collectors, buying paintings and sculptures. We both had our own taste. I like minimalism and Nancy liked Bay Area figurative painters. The main house on the ranch is a stone ranch, not very conducive to hanging art on the walls. We had a number of outdoor sculptures that we moved up there.
AR: When did you first consider commissioning artists to work on the site?
SO: In the eighties we got tired about reading about art on the financial pages of the newspaper instead of in the critical pages. We had a pretty difficult dinner one night with some dear friends. I was complaining about a painting that I had loaned to a museum and I had to buy a transit insurance policy. This guy reads two sections of the newspaper, the financial section and the sports section. I could see the wheels in his head turning, and he said, “You mean this is worth something? What a second, you are investing in this! You are making money from this!”
I said, “No! I have never sold anything.” Reading the financial pages was the only connection he could make with the art world. There was a huge growth in the print business in the 1980s. There were a lot of dealers getting on artists to sell prints. So in 1985, after we had dinner with this friend, Nancy and I decided to have an artist come here and build something that’s site-specific and ceases to have monetary value.
AR: Was this your protest against the financial pages’ discussion of art?
SO: Yes, it started out to be innocent. That was all it was. We decided not to buy art for a year and commission an artist instead. So we invited one artist. It was a terribly painful experience for us, and if she wasn’t so great, it would’ve all ended right there.
AR: This was artist Judith Shea?
SO: Yes. After a year of drawing up sketches and us whining, she asked us what we were thinking of. We went on to describe her last museum show. She was like, “Well, I am not doing that work anymore and you just have to trust where I’m going.” So we had another difficult dinner and decided that we had to trust her. It was so narrow-minded of us because the pieces in the Mall of Washington, DC, and the Walker Art Center’s Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis all came out of the work from the ranch. It was the first time architectural elements and the masculine form appeared in her work.
AR: Were you surprised by the artist’s process?
SO: Probably less so than most people because I work in the construction business. The creative process is not new to us. I deal with architects, who propose ideas, then we come up with budgets. However, artists make decisions differently. Art is different than something that has a functional property. [Judith Shea] was terrific. She sensed that this was a new path for us. We had assumed that the artist’s past work was the work they were going to make on the ranch. A lot of artists now come to the ranch to do things they haven’t done elsewhere. It is great and part of the learning and growing process for us.
We spent two or three years with her going through this process, and when she left we missed the creativity at the table. Imagine, my children and grandchildren grew up with these people at our dinner table.
AR: And how did the commissions evolve after the Judith Shea piece?
SO: After Judith left, we missed having an artist in our lives, so we decided to do one more. That was the Roger Berry work, an arch that was related to the sun and light. Then we realized we weren’t doing garden art anymore because that was half a mile from the house. Judith Shea’s piece was right by the house, which was what we wanted. Then all of the sudden we became collectors of site-specific work. It was no longer a traditional thing. We missed having that creativity, talking, and problem solving with an artist.
AR: I recall you mentioning on the tour that part of the commission is to have the artists live at the ranch. Is it important for you to have artists live on-site?
SO: They have to do three or four trips before they can make a proposal. It can be spring or fall. It drags out the process a bit, but we want to make sure that it is something that will be an integral part of our life. By and large, we have been incredibly lucky with the artists we’ve worked with. It becomes an intense relationship. Sometimes you have the same arguments you would have with your brother or sister. And the arguments you have!
A lot of artists don’t stay at the ranch very long. Ursula Van Rydingsvard stayed the longest of fourteen months because it was all fabricated there. While someone like [Richard] Serra, he’d be there two weeks and then be gone for two months because a lot of it was fabricated off-site. And then Ann Hamilton—I am sure my grandchildren think she is a relative because after she had the commission, signed the contract, and received the first stipend, it was fourteen years before she decided what she wanted to do. She had about ten to fifteen ideas during that time, and we would talk about them but a lot of them just didn’t work. Once she had what she wanted, it took three years to build. She was in our life for almost twenty years.
AR: I read that when you commission an artist you put yourself in the role of a studio assistant for the artist. Can you speak more about your role in the fabrication of the work?
SO: I say I’m a glorified studio assistant. In some ways it is a nicer than saying things like patron or other terms that embarrass me a little bit. Studio assistant l like better because the artists come to me with the ideas and I get the engineers in line to make it happen.
There were a lot of engineers who didn’t want to do business with us. The first two engineers who worked on Ann Hamilton’s tower quit. We had to dig sixty-five feet in the ground—a lot of engineers didn’t want to tell me that was what it would take to make the tower stable. Although, it has moved in a very positive way and it is an incredibly positive experience.
[Artists] solve problems differently. I was trained as an engineer. I find out what the problem is and go directly to the problem. Artists modify the perception of the problem. It is so brilliant how they problem-solve. Often because they have less means and have to make creative decisions on how they solve a problem.
My team and I problem-solve issues in construction and development, particularly large-scale works. That is where the studio assistant term comes in. When I was setting Serra’s blocks, one of the big problems was—we have used a lot of cranes that can pick up sixty to eighty tons of materials; they are six stories high with big outrigger arms that they would have to swing around to move those blocks. [If those cranes were used,] we would have destroyed all of the trees in the area. I didn’t want arms longer than twenty feet.
What was I to do? So I called up one of my guys. It took six people, but someone found a Borax mine in Southern California that was shutting down for the summer for maintenance. They had the largest rubber tire-loader in the world; you could park two station wagons in their loader. I rented it from them for two months. The loader could pick up seventy-five tons, and we set all the blocks that way.
AR: Do you feel like that has informed your work in your construction company as well?
SO: Without question. I think my employees are much more equipped to work with our clients in all kinds of ways from working with artists. The artist Ellen Driscoll is probably the best welder I have seen, and my guys learned from her.
The art world has had a great influence on us. I have seventeen carpenters that belong to museums now. They are seeing things differently because of exposure to a world they wouldn’t see otherwise. Sure it is important to support artists to do these creative things, but it is also interfacing cultures that wouldn’t cross paths. The construction business and the art world aren’t exactly right next to each other.
AR: You are planning to share the collection with a wider audience through a new book on the ranch. What does the book feature and when is the publication date?
SO: It’s expected early next year. We have been working on it for three years. The writer is a curator, Joan Simon, based in Paris. She did the catalogues for [Bruce] Nauman and Ann Hamilton. The book designer is Green Dragon Office, an all-female firm in Southern California. It is a real dream team. They have interviewed all of the artists and a lot of other related people, including dealers.
AR: Are you commissioning any works right now?
SO: We had four in the process. One piece was with an artist we worked with for three years, invested a lot, but finally had to give up. It was a low-velocity cyclone, 20 feet in diameter, 30,000 feet in the air. But birds can fly through it. I already got it through the FAA. At night you could add water to it to make it visible, and it would light up five miles in the air. But it didn’t work out.
In 2009 Oliver Ranch partnered with the Community Foundation Sonoma County to create the Oliver Ranch Foundation. As an asset for Sonoma County, the foundation ensures that Oliver Ranch will stay a part of the Sonoma community and brings together artists, art organizations, and art supporters. The book about Oliver Ranch, featuring artist interviews and more about the story of the ranch, is due out in early 2014. The ranch accepts reservations for donated tours of the ranch to nonprofit institutions and hosts performances in Ann Hamilton’s “Tower.” Currently, the Olivers have three new site-specific commissions in process. For more information about the ranch, visit www.oliverranchfoundation.org.
Artists featured on Oliver Ranch include Terry Allen, Miroslaw Balka, Roger Berry, Ellen Driscoll, Bill Fontana, Kristen Jones, Andrew Ginzel, Andy Goldsworthy, Ann Hamilton, Dennis Leon, Jim Melchert, Bruce Nauman, Martin Puryear, David Rainowitch, Jim Jennings, Fred Sandback, Richard Serra, Judith Shea, Robert Stackhouse, and Ursula Von Rydingsvard.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Rachelle Reichert is a San Francisco based artist. Her paintings have been nationally and internationally exhibited including exhibitions at the German Consulate in New York City, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Galleria il Sotoportego in Venice, Italy, Sloane Fine Art in New York City and Southern Exposure in San Francisco. Rachelle received her BFA from Boston University in 2007.