An opportune moment for museum

It's been a bad news/good news month for museums.

The bad news comes from Fresno, where the Fresno Metropolitan Museum, an ambitious downtown project that cost more than twice as much as estimated just as the economy tanked, has closed its doors, lost its building and is selling off its collection.

It joins the ranks of some 20 museums that folded in the United States in the past year.

Happily, the good news is closer to home. The Sonoma County Museum has been offered a 10,000-square-foot space, rent free, in the glass-front, multi-use structure planned by Hugh Futrell and Bill Carle in and around the old AT&T building on Third Street in downtown Santa Rosa.

While all signs say "Proceed with Caution," museum supporters should welcome this opportunity. The new space would be for contemporary art, leaving the overcrowded Old Post Office on Seventh Street for the museum's historical collection, which encompasses all of Sonoma County's past, as well two important art collections that now languish in storage.

Some believe the museum has tried to do too much with too little. Contemporary art and history, some say, don't mix.

So there also may be a healing element to the two venues.

The charge from the Bicentennial Commission that established the museum in 1976 calls for an institution that records, displays and interprets the history of the area — including appropriate art. But a growing interest in contemporary art and a merger with the Museum of Contemporary Art, known as MOCA, when that organization scrapped plans for a $5.5 million facility at the Luther Burbank Center, has resulted in factions that compete for space in the Old Post Office.

If this new plan, which is on the fast track for the end of 2011, is successful, contemporary art will have its own venue. And the history community — including the people who "saved" the Old Post Office and established the museum — will finally get the attention they deserve with space enough to tell the stories of Sonoma County's varied and adventuresome past.

There will be two more "winners:" The Christo and Jeanne-Claude Collection, a gift from the late west county collector Tom Golden, which includes many works generated by the Running Fence project in Sonoma County in 1976; and the Ivan Hart Collection and other fine examples of early California paintings. Eventual plans are for permanent space for both on an expanded Seventh Street campus.

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