Garbed improbably but characteristically in a worn denim shirt and a faded trucker's cap, Rene di Rosa is apologizing for his faltering memory.
We are in the main room of the gray stone house that was his residence for the better part of 30 years. There is scarcely a square foot of wall that isn't covered by a large framed canvas, or a patch of hardwood floor unoccupied by a free-standing sculpture--pieces from a remarkable personal collection of mostly Bay Area artists that numbers more than 2,000 works and that he opened to public view in 1997.
"Once upon a time I could tell you the artist who did this or that, and his wife, and maybe his dog's name," Di Rosa says. "Now I can't remember the artist's name." If pressed for the year or circumstances of a particular acquisition, he says regretfully, he might have to pass. He shakes his head. "Gadzooks!"
The nonprofit Di Rosa Preserve: Art & Nature is one of California's overlooked treasures. While crowds jostle for tickets to synthetic exhibitions such as LACMA's King Tut show, the preserve remains the treasured secret of the few thousand visitors who find their way each year to its hillside location in the Carneros district of Napa County: three gallery buildings, including the old residence, a meadow dotted with numerous outdoor installations and a man-made lake, all spread over 217 acres that Di Rosa retained after selling most of the surrounding vineyard for a record price in 1986.
After passing through an inconspicuous gate on a busy thoroughfare connecting Napa and San Francisco, one finds a democratic, catholic and highly individual collection--the product of a near absolute confluence of Di Rosa's personal taste and the currents emerging in Bay Area art circles when he began collecting in earnest in the early 1960s. Like the region's artists, Di Rosa harbored a powerful preference for maximalism over minimalism, for figuration rather than Abstract Expressionism, for color and wit, and for a seditiously neo-Dadaist critique of society, regionalism and the conventions of modern art itself.
He hadn't planned to create a world-class collection of California modern art when he started buying from the young painters and sculptors he encountered on his solitary visits to art institutes and university studios, he explains. He was just trying to please himself, and the rest just happened.
"We filled up this room, and then the bedroom and the bath, and finally we went downstairs and then back here and up." The 86-year-old collector casts a glance at the vaulted ceiling, from which a dozen huge canvases peer down, suspended on hooks. "I couldn't stop."
But as perfect a match as the collection is to its bucolic setting, the preserve is facing a period of uncertainty and change. It now is supervised by a board of directors of which Di Rosa is the chairman, but which includes local artists, philanthropists and other luminaries. Although Di Rosa still visits art institutes and galleries searching for artists waiting to be discovered, he has ceded management of the collection to a staff of curators and other professionals. They are beginning to consider, very gingerly, how to manage the collection apres Rene.
The fortunes of similarly idiosyncratic art collections, following their founders' passings, have been checkered. Consider the baleful destiny of the world-class Barnes collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art, which was established in the homey environment of a suburban Philadelphia mansion designed as an anti-museum by its founder, a patent medicine tycoon, in 1925. Its visitors incited hostility among the tourist-averse rural neighbors, and its endowment was squandered by later generations of trustees. The collection last year was permitted to relocate to a tourist-friendly downtown location by a judge, violating the founder's express wishes.
For every Barnes, however, there is a counter-example--Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a collection of Titians, Botticellis and other continental masters that has been embraced by its community and left largely unchanged since it was opened in 1903.
The Di Rosa board seems determined to keep the collection in place, but whether it will continue to acquire pieces for the collection--perhaps finding a formula that honors Di Rosa's aesthetic--is under discussion. "The changeover of responsibility and power is just beginning," says William Allan, a prominent Bay Area artist and longtime friend of the collector who serves on the board. "The nature of the collection is Rene's spirit, but that's a one-person operation. I don't see how that can be perpetuated."