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Michael Schwager looks back on 29 years as director of Sonoma State University’s art gallery

Not everyone can become a professional artist. But anyone can learn to understand and appreciate art. Michael Schwager, who retired in late August after nearly 30 years on the Sonoma State University art faculty, has dedicated his entire career to that ideal.

As director of the university’s on-campus public art gallery, he was able to share his knowledge and love of art not only with students, but also with the broader community.

“I was an artist, and thought I would be a professional artist, before I discovered art history,” said Schwager, 67, who commuted from his home in Oakland to Sonoma State University throughout his tenure there.

“I fell in love with learning, and then I discovered the museum world,” he said. “I never looked back, because museums are the institutions that bring art to the public. If you want an audience for art, you need to share. You can educate through exhibitions. The gallery and teaching went hand in hand.”

Sonoma State University opened its new University Art Gallery building in 1978, and since then the venue has shown art not only by students and faculty, but also by local, regional and international artists. Michael Schwager became director in 1991.

His predecessor as gallery director was Bob Nugent, a painter and former member of the SSU art faculty, who credits Schwager with expanding the scope and reach of the school’s campus art showcase.

“He brought in lots of wonderful shows with artists from outside the county,” Nugent said. “That is one of the things that students needed. He brought art history to it also.”

Schwager taught museum management at Sonoma State as well as art history. His former students have worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), where Schwager once worked before coming to the university in Rohnert Park.

“A lot of his people have gone on to museum jobs and are still working in the arts,” Nugent said. “That speaks highly of him.’

At Sonoma State, Schwager also served as curator of the di Rosa art collection in Napa Valley, now known as the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, from 2004 to 2009.

He had met the institution’s founder, Rene di Rosa, when the latter served on the board of SFMOMA. Since 1985, Schwager has curated, lectured on and written about the work of many Northern California artists. Before joining the faculty at Sonoma State, he worked for more than a decade at several California art institutions, including the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery, the San Francisco Art Institute Gallery, the Richmond Art Center and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

“I learned so much working with Michael,” said Carla Stone, exhibitions coordinator at the Sonoma State University Art Gallery. “When I started, the position was advertised as a part-time clerical assistant. I was hired to sit at a desk, open mail, answer the phone and pay bills, but I learned how to get galleries to lend us artwork for exhibitions.”

The Sonoma State campus has been closed since mid-March due to coronavirus restrictions, but Stone continues to oversee the site and its online exhibitions, including the current “Prologue I: An Introduction,” at artgallery.sonoma.edu/exhibitions.

“Michael is a visionary,” Stone said. “He picked the exhibits and invited the guest artists. I was the logistics person. He has intimate knowledge of the Bay Area art scene and brought in a lot of art that Sonoma County never would have seen otherwise.”

For the campus gallery’s 40th anniversary exhibit two years ago, Schwager picked one piece each of current work by 40 artists out of the many who had shown their work there over the years.

Featured Sonoma County artists included painter Robert Hudson of Cotati, as well as the late painter Bill Morehouse and the late sculptor Wally Hedrick. The show also included work by Japanese-born and Los Angeles-based sculptor and sound artist Mineko Grimmer and Mexico City-born painter Enrique Chagoya, who went on to become an art professor at Stanford University.

“One of my favorite subjects is Bay Area art,” Schwager said. “We had access to a lot of great regional artists.”

Schwager holds a bachelor of fine arts degree from California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and a master’s degree in museum studies from John F. Kennedy University, San Francisco. But people on campus knew him for his love of art.

“The students loved him. He is so enthusiastic and interesting. He was never the stuffy academician that nobody could talk to,” Stone said.

To Schwager, inciting the love of art in others has been a greater thrill than creating his own artwork.

“I organized 60 art shows over the years at Sonoma State University,” he said. “I wanted people to take it seriously. My mission was was to share my passion for art.”

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5243. On Twitter @danarts.

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