The Oliver Ranch Story

“The Oliver Ranch is an exquisite place and an extraordinary idea.”
– Joan Simon

Located in the heart of Sonoma County, 70 miles north of San Francisco, and known internationally for its wineries and scenic pleasures, the Oliver Ranch is home to 18 remarkable site-specific installations; the most recent of which is Ann Hamilton’s The tower where commissioned dance, poetry, theatre, and music performances take place. The picturesque 100-acre property was originally bought by Steve and Nancy Oliver in 1981 to graze a few extra sheep from, as Steve says, “My daughter’s 4-H project gone bad.” The ranch’s evolution from exiled sheep quarters to world-renowned sculpture ranch was gradual and organic, a natural convergence of the Olivers’ longstanding passion for art and deep connection to the land.

Roger Berry
Oliver Ranch Installation — Roger Berry, “Darwin”, 1988-89 (Corten steel sculpture)

From Sheep to Art

“It all began with the sheep.”
– Steve Oliver

After exporting a few family sheep from their suburban home to the property, the Olivers learned to tend to their livestock, and enjoyed shearing, feeding and lambing; activities far afield from their urban roots. The happy herd expanded. Soon the family sheep began winning prizes at California fairs, and the Olivers were eventually courted by a local producer to grow organic lamb for restaurants. They took up the challenge and began participating in a vibrant, local organic food movement. Escaping city life and the 24/7 demands of Steve’s burgeoning construction company on the weekends, the Oliver family soaked up the pastoral setting and enjoyed their unplanned sheep business. By the mid 1980’s, the Olivers had decided to build a weekend home on the property.

From the first sculpture “Shepherd’s Muse” by Judith Shea, which they commissioned in 1985, the Olivers were motivated by a love of art, a desire to support artists, and also a wish to circumvent the “business” of art. Disillusioned with valuation in the world of art collecting, the Olivers decided to commission site-specific installations that could not be moved, and therefore, neither bought nor sold. Under these conditions, the focus would be on the art itself, not its assessment. The Olivers also wondered what would happen when artists were virtually freed of traditional constraints.

In working with Shea on the first commission, and allowing ideas to develop in a way that was unencumbered by deadline, budget or patron’s expectation, a process evolved including a long term relationship with the artist and setting the path for all the commissions to follow. Undertaking each one-of-a-kind installation in partnership with the artist, the Olivers worked closely and often over long periods of time with the artists, forging close personal relationships. The artists are part family, part collaborators and part idols. Steve adds, “Great artists are some of the greatest minds in the world.”

The Olivers describe their adventures at the ranch, and with the artists, not so much as “collecting art”, but as “collecting experiences.” The Olivers have pursued this unique passion for over 25 years, their only direction to the artists has been that they “respond to the land.” Both Steve and Nancy share decision-making in the choice of artists, followed by Steve’s role as “studio assistant” in construction. Later Steve serves as a “tour guide”, leading a two-and-a-half mile walk for each visiting group, recounting the stories of each installation along the way. These tours, along with original performance works in the tower now drive the Oliver Ranch philanthropic engine.


Unexpected and Innovative Philanthropy

“Believe me, we never planned to have tour buses parked in our driveway 30 days a year.”
– Nancy Oliver

During his tenure as president of the board at SFMOMA in the mid 1990s, Steve was frequently approached to give tours of his property. Realizing this was a fundraising tool that could help the museum, Steve found himself leading numerous tours. As the ranch grew in acclaim and word of mouth, requests for tours grew and the Olivers saw that their ranch could benefit other non-profits as well. As a result, the Olivers now make tours available to non-profit organizations who can then offer the tour as an auction item or on a cost-per-ticket basis.

Oliver Ranch Installation — Ann Hamilton, “The tower designed by Ann Hamilton for the Oliver Ranch, Geyserville, CA”, 2003-2007 (Cast concrete tower performance space)

Since the tower project was finished in 2007, the Olivers have also commissioned a number of performance artists to create site-specific works for The tower. These performances are also made available to non-profits to use as fundraising events. While Steve and Nancy never plotted the course of their philanthropy, they recognized and generously took advantage of their unique circumstances so they might give back to the non-profit community through the arts.


Oliver Ranch Foundation

“I mean what do you do with such a place? There’s really only one thing to do – you give it to the community.”
– Steve Oliver

In 2009, Steve and Nancy Oliver partnered with Community Foundation Sonoma County to create the Oliver Ranch Foundation as a supporting organization of the Community Foundation. This partnership assures that the Olivers’ vision for the ranch continues into perpetuity and allows the Olivers to leave the ranch in local hands. As of 2009, the Olivers contributed to the Oliver Ranch Foundation an undivided interest in the land and the sculptures affixed to the land, with plans for the remaining interests in the land and sculptures to go to the Foundation over the Olivers’ lifetimes.

The Foundation is committed to celebrating the voice and vision of artists with deep and abiding respect for the transformative power of art. Excellence and respect for artistic integrity guide all endeavors at the ranch. The Foundation encourages innovative philanthropy by bringing artists, arts organizations and art supporters together to share the creative experience. The Foundation does not give general arts grants outside the ranch programs, but offers non-profit organizations fundraising opportunities through tours and performances at the ranch. Grants are awarded to artists or art organizations in order to create original site-specific performance works for the tower.

The Oliver Ranch Foundation board members include Steve and Nancy Oliver, Barbara Hughes (CEO of Community Foundation Sonoma County), Jean Schulz (President of the Schulz Museum) and John Mackie (managing partner at Carle, Mackie, Power and Ross, LLP).