Eric Stanley, Associate Director and Curator of History
June 9, 2020
Christo, who with his wife and partner, Jeanne-Claude, used sculpture to transform people’s understanding of places, iconic structures, and even mundane objects, died in New York on May 31 at the age of 84. His passing calls to mind his long and rich connection with Sonoma County through the monumental artwork Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76.
Christo at The Floating Piers, June 2016, Photo: Wolfgang Volz, Courtesy of the office of Christo and Jeanne-Claude
A statement from the artist’s office reads, in part, “Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s artwork brought people together in shared experiences across the globe, and their work lives on in our hearts and memories.”
Of that there is no doubt. Running Fence still reverberates throughout Sonoma County. The 24.5-mile-long shimmering fabric fence that Christo and Jeanne-Claude erected across the landscape from near Cotati to the Pacific Ocean at Bodega Bay, was unfurled on September 10, 1976 and lasted for a mere two weeks. Cutting across the rolling west-Sonoma and Marin County landscapes, serving no apparent purpose beyond aesthetics, Running Fence united an unlikely array of people. From the rancher-property owners whose land the fence ran across (59 different owners), to art critics, lawyers, real estate agents, teachers, college students, journalists, writers, curious onlookers, and others, Running Fence connected them around a shared experience. At the hearings and public meetings for Running Fence in 1974 and ’75, Christo would turn to the crowd–including supporters and detractors– and intone, “You are all part of my work!” And that sentiment stuck, especially after the fence was in place and many (though not all) of the critics were won over to the artist’s vision, and more importantly, the process that brought them all together.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76, Photo: Jeanne-Claude, Courtesy of the office of Christo and Jeanne-Claude
A testament to the lasting, local impact of Christo and Running Fence came in 2001. Twenty-five years after the artwork briefly graced the summer-gold hills, Tom Golden, the unofficial mayor of the small Sonoma County town of Freestone, donated his collection of works by Christo and Jeanne-Claude to the Museum of Sonoma County. At the time, it was the largest private collection of Christo’s work anywhere. Golden’s personal and professional relationship with the artists began when he met them during the 1974 public hearings for the approval of Running Fence. Golden went on to manage or assist with a number of the artists’ large-scale projects. The Museum exhibited Golden’s remarkable collection and hosted a visit by Christo and Jeanne-Claude at the quarter century anniversary of Running Fence. The artists’ visit, originally scheduled for September 22, 2001, was temporarily delayed because of the September 11 terrorist attacks, but a reunion of those involved in Running Fence was held at the Museum as scheduled. Enthusiastic guests packed the Museum to capacity to share stories, be interviewed by local journalist and historian Gaye LeBaron, and hear from a panel of those involved in the artwork’s installation.
(Clockwise from top left) Dan Peterson, Tom Golden, Toby Smith, and Geraldine "Gerry" Peterson, wearing "They Said It Couldn't Be Done!" shirts to celebrate the successful relocation of the Santa Rosa Post Office (now museum) to Seventh Street.
Running Fence itself was magical and transformative, but so was the convergence of Tom Golden, the Museum of Sonoma County, and the Bulgarian-born artist who seemed to arrive out of nowhere in 1974. Tom Golden and his partner, Jim Kidder, moved to Freestone in 1970 where they restored the old Freestone Hotel and turned it into a center of culture and politics in West Sonoma County. Golden advocated for strict historic preservation laws and served on the Sonoma County Historic Landmark Commission. Which, no doubt, connected him to another prominent project involving a historic building in Sonoma County in the 1970s: the creation of a museum. Just about the time that Christo appeared in Sonoma County, Golden became an advocate for the establishment of the Museum of Sonoma County. His image appears in an iconic photograph of the old Santa Rosa Post Office being moved to create a home for the new Museum in 1979. With a hard hat on his head and bullhorn in his hand, Golden fought for the creation of the Museum to which he would later donate his collection of works by Christo, just a year before he died in 2002.
The connections between Christo, Tom Golden, and the Museum of Sonoma County form a rich legacy that still exists for people to appreciate, from the stories of Running Fence to the works in the Museum’s collection. Yet, as with all of Christo’s major projects, it was not as much the artwork itself, the material part of it, but the relationships and reverberations that the project spawned, like ripples spreading out across a shimmering, windblown fabric. Christo may be gone, but the ripples continue.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude at The Gates, February 2005, Photo: Wolfgang Volz, Courtesy of the office of Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The Tom Golden Collection
Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The Tom Golden Collection (managed by Landau Traveling Exhibitions) includes over 100 original drawings, sculptures, collages and photographs that trace their impressive careers. The collection has been exhibited in our galleries throughout the years and shared with museums across the country as a traveling exhibition.