The First Monograph on Sonoma’s Artful Oliver Ranch Chronicles its Inspired History

Sculpture gardens have a long and distinguished history in the United States. Many are adjacent to museums or located on university campuses, while others are independent institutions sited beautifully in nature. In most cases American sculpture gardens feature works of art that have been acquired ready-made, although some feature works that were commissioned and are site-specific. The sculpture project that Steve and Nancy Oliver have developed in Northern California occupies a unique position in that the process of commissioning and making the works has been as important as the finished works. The product of Steve Oliver’s vision as well as the creativity of some of the major artists of our time, the Oliver Ranch is a singularly personal and endlessly engaging experience.

In 1981 the Olivers acquired a weekend getaway, a sheep ranch located in the beautiful rolling hills just to the east of Geyserville, a ninety-minute drive north of San Francisco. Seeking a different, noncommercial way of engaging with art and artists, they decided to commission an artist to create a site-specific work for their property.

Steve and Nancy came to realize that commissioning artists to create site-specific work required a leap of faith. The challenge was to carefully select the right artists to make proposals and then trust them to produce work worthy of permanent installation. Over time they developed a commissioning process that would help them to engage in a meaningful way with the artists with whom they wanted to work.

Initially the Olivers attempted to commission two works per year, and the late 1980s and early 1990s saw a great many works completed on the ranch. These included sculptures by Roger Berry, Ellen Driscoll, Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel, Dennis Leon, Robert Stackhouse, Ursula von Rydingsvard, and Terry Allen. Because Steve was thoroughly engaged in the development and installation of many of the works, however, this proved to be too time-consuming and difficult to manage.

A work such as Richard Serra’s Snake Eyes and Boxcars (1990–93) was enormously challenging to fabricate, transport, and install, and this resulted in a somewhat slower commissioning process.

The experience of working with Serra had an enormous impact on the couple. They became good friends with Serra and his wife, Clara Weyergraf. Even though Serra created one of his most important outdoor works for the Olivers’ property, it was in fact the experience of working with the artist over a sustained period of time that has meant the most to Steve Oliver. So while the number of commissions declined thereafter, Oliver’s relationships with the artists with whom he worked deepened. As he said about the process of working with Serra, “Being around someone so creative made me understand that this is the reason I’m working—to invest in these relationships.”

Although the pace of new commissions for the Oliver Ranch slowed in the mid-1990s, the quality and originality of the subsequent works were remarkable. Following Serra, artists such as Mirosław Bałka, Bruce Nauman, and Martin Puryear completed major works between 1994 and 1999. Perhaps most extraordinary of all was the relationship that the Olivers developed with Ann Hamilton during the work on tower · Oliver Ranch (1994–2006). Conceived over several years as a performance space, the finished work is a concrete tower resembling a silo, with a double-helix staircase inside. After its completion, Hamilton, in conversation with Oliver, invited a wide variety of musicians and dancers to respond to the space.

What began in 1985 as a modest and very personal project to add a few works of art to a weekend home has become a life lived through art and in public service to the arts. As Steve Oliver has said: “Having this involvement in art as a life pursuit gives me a reason for my own work and it enriches my own work ethic . . . I have a lot of wonderful clients and we do a lot of interesting projects, but the brightest people I’ve ever worked with are artists.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 2015 issue of San Francisco Cottages & Gardens with the headline: Formal Landscape.