Imagery Winery donates $2 million art collection to Sonoma State University

The 442-piece collection will triple the size of the university's current art collection.|

A vast collection of art commissioned over the course of three decades by the Benziger family for its Imagery Winery will find a new home at Sonoma State University.

The 442-piece collection is the largest gift of art in the university’s history and triples the size of its art collection. It likely won’t appear in a public exhibit until the fall, SSU spokesman Nicolas Grizzle said.

The collection of contemporary art began when winemaker Joe Benziger started commissioning works to adorn the labels on bottles of wine produced by Imagery Winery, a branch of Benziger Family Winery that focuses on producing small-batch artisan wines.

The idea to put art on wine labels came into play during Benziger’s chance meeting with artist and SSU professor Bob Nugent, when together they broke up a fight at a polo match, according to Imagery’s website.

After that, the two had a drink and started talking shop. Eventually, Nugent volunteered to design a label for Benziger’s fledgling winery, “something that could match the expressiveness and originality of the wine inside,” the site says.

That was back in 1984.

Since then, the collection has evolved to include art from hundreds of contemporary artists such as Sol LeWitt, Robert Arneson, William T. Wiley, Nancy Graves, Robert Hudson, Squeak Carnwath, Tony Speirs and more.

But the collection has outgrown the space it inhabits at the winery, so the Benzigers began searching for a new home for the artwork, the university said. SSU seemed like a perfect fit.

“I wanted to keep the whole collection together in one place,” Benziger said in a statement. “To have it so close to home at Sonoma State, which is developing such a great wine business program, that is very special. Our family is very proud that it’s going to be there.”

The collection is valued at more than $2 million, but its value as a complete collection is much more, said Nugent, the collection’s curator.

All of the works incorporate an image of the Parthenon, the only requirement given to artists. The visual reference is designed to connect Imagery to the Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen, where a recreation of the Greek temple stands. Most of the works are two-dimensional, though some do have three-dimensional elements.

“It was always our hope that the collection would stay together and be exhibited in the years to come,” Tim Wallace, a member of the Benziger family and former Benziger Family Winery president, said in a statement. “We feel that Sonoma State is the perfect home for the collection.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 521-5205 or On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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