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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.

IT'S AN EXCITING prospect. Even with a lagging economy, the timing could be propitious. The museum is celebrating two important anniversaries this year.

It's been 25 years since the museum staged its grand opening exhibit — a quarter century of glorious successes and grandiose plans, of false starts and sudden stops, of five directors (and two interim directors, one them twice). Through it all, a museum community has formed — a community of dedicated patrons and volunteers, of wide-eyed schoolchildren and those adults among us who retain that sense of curiosity and wonder.

Moreover, 2010 is the 100th anniversary of the Old Post Office building that houses the museum.

There is high adventure connected with both milestones. From 1910 to 1965, at its post at Fifth and A streets, the building served as the city's main post office. By the late 1970s, the official post office had long been in a new location and the old one was vacant and slated for demolition to make way for the mall.

It became clear that the only way to save the historic structure was to move it. And that was a trip — pushing and pulling a 1,700-ton stone-and-brick building along a set of tracks for two city blocks, 900 yards in all. The optimistic contractor thought it would take five to seven days. It took 2? months.

By June 1979 it was on Seventh Street, and the Museum Foundation was ready to spend a busy 5? years getting the doors open. That occurred, with a flourish, on Jan. 12, 1985.

BOTH ANNIVERSARIES will be celebrated all year, says museum director Diane Evans. "There is a timeline in the lobby, and periodically, there will be small exhibits of the building's history," she promises.

The museum's main fundraiser, the gala in April, "will be a big birthday party," says Evans, "and there will be a public birthday celebration in July."

So what's the first step toward the downtown space and the division of interests?

Well, you guessed it. It's money.

The contemporary art space will require tenant improvements. The Old Post Office, too, will need some adjusting. The museum owns the entire block on Seventh and hopes to one day use it all, including new exhibit space, a research facility and offices. And, since admissions don't pay museums expenses, there's an endowment to build and keep it all up and running.

The Sonoma County Historical Society, which has been actively seeking a new focus, might look to Seventh Street, where it all began.

And don't be surprised that Evans doesn't want to talk about Fresno.

"I really don't want to be associated with it," she says.

But she's aware that seven years before she arrived, this museum dodged a bullet eerily similar to the one that "killed" Fresno's Met.

Read this quote from a Fresno Bee story last March about the Met's impending doom: Speaking of the departed museum director, the reporter writes: "She and Los Angeles architect Michael Maltzan ... unveiled in 2004 a block-sized campus anchored by a huge new building connected to a remodeled 87-year-old building once occupied by the Fresno Bee."

OK. Substitute Old Post Office for Fresno Bee and you've got the story of what happened here in 2001.

In Fresno, the spectacular Maltzan addition was never built, but the museum board of directors went ahead with the remodeling of the old building — a project estimated to cost $12 million and take a year. It cost $28 million and closed the museum for three years. Fresno columnists speculate that Maltzan was paid "several million dollars" for his preliminary design.

The Sonoma County Museum could have suffered a similar fate. It, too, had contracted with architect Maltzan to make preliminary drawings of a remodel and an extensive addition. The cost was less — "only" about $1 million.

In Santa Rosa, the Maltzan plan was a modern building that encompassed the Old Post Office and covered the entire block. After six years of attempts to interest big donors in the fancy plan (and it was spectacular!) the effort had raised $8 million and the projected costs had escalated to $30 million.

In 2007, it was scrapped, officially. The director in question had moved on and cooler heads on the museum board of directors prevailed.

Now, with a new avenue, Evans sees "an opportunity to channel all the art and history energy into something great for the region."

"We are looking at a growth project, conservatively done, something we can afford. It could solve the problems of the past," she says. "It gives us more clarity."