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Eat, Drink, and Be Cultural

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A Napa Valley center's ambitious goal is to combine the fine and culinary arts in a serious way.

November 25, 2001|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

NAPA — If the notion of establishing a single cultural center for wine, food and the arts sounds like a recipe for goulash, take a look at your favorite art history book. Eating, drinking and art-making have simmered in the same pot through the ages. Beginning with prehistoric cave drawings of bison hunts, examples include everything from Roman paintings of Dionysian festivals to 17th century Dutch still-lifes and Andy Warhol's Pop paintings of Campbell's soup cans.

Still, the launching of Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts has raised some eyebrows in the art world. Initiated by wine industry pioneer Robert Mondavi, who acquired a 121/2-acre site for the project in downtown Napa and made a lead gift of $20 million, the unusual institution opened last Sunday. It occupies a $55-million, 80,000-square-foot building designed by Polshek Partnership Architects.

The two-story structure of stone, polished concrete, metal and glass has 13,000 square feet of gallery space, to be used for an exhibition program. But that's only one component of the new institution, which will offer wine tasting and gourmet dining along with a variety of public programs in its demonstration kitchen, classrooms, gardens, and indoor and outdoor theaters.

Named for the Roman goddess of abundance, Copia is advertised as "the world's leading cultural center dedicated to the discovery, understanding and celebration of wine, food and the arts." But it didn't initially inspire the confidence of hard-core arts professionals--including its director, Peggy A. Loar. "My first reaction was, 'They can't be serious about the arts,"' she said in an interview in her office overlooking the Napa River. "I thought they just added that onto the title."

An art historian with 30 years of experience in museum management, Loar was in her 10th year as founding president and director of the Wolfsonian Museum and Research Center, a trove of advertising and propaganda art, when she got the call from Copia in 1997. Getting the Wolfsonian off the ground, both in Miami and in Genoa, Italy, required her to organize an eclectic, 70,000-piece collection of American and European design and decorative arts, and to create displays that show how art is used to sell ideas and products.

"It was an intellectual challenge," she said. And she decided it was time to take on a new one.

"I realized that wherever you have the arts, good food and wine generally follow," Loar said. "People who enjoy food and wine, or are involved in the production or spiritual and nourishing aspects of it, will also be intrigued by the history of art [that relates to it] and by contemporary artists who are looking at social issues as a way to define their lives and experience. I began to think of wine and food as agri-culture and art as material culture."

Loar also began to think of Copia as "a kind of conceptual museum, one that would not be burdened with the tremendous responsibility and cost of maintaining a collection," she said. "We could work with museums that have collections in a way that cross-pollinates with the humanities, so that we could deal with issues like cultural anthropology and archeology and contemporary art history and conceptual art.

"We could also look to the future and bring together artists, humanists and scientists to talk about issues like global food supply and sustainable agriculture. We are not just interested in abundance here, but also scarcity," she said.

Four and a half years after Loar began pondering all this, Copia has opened with three inaugural exhibitions. "Active Ingredients"--the main event for the art crowd--is composed of specially commissioned food-related works by seven contemporary artists. In addition, "Forks in the Road: Food, Wine and the American Table" examines the evolution of American tastes and customs, while "A Fine Glass of Wine" presents 105 rare wine glasses from the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

With Betty Teller, assistant director of exhibitions, Loar hopes to present "one splendid, important, major contemporary show" each year, along with many other exhibitions in the galleries and gardens. "Active Ingredients" was organized by guest curators Margaret Miller, director of the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum in Tampa, and Amy Cappellazzo, former curator of the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art and newly appointed international specialist at Christie's contemporary art department in New York.

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