A Passion for Art

Hometown Heroes, Odd Collections, People
on February 24, 2002

Unknown artists traditionally find it hard to gain recognition, but in northern California Rene di Rosa has helped change all that. Di Rosa, a former Napa Valley grape grower turned art collector, has for nearly 20 years been championing the work of emerging regional artists by buying their works and giving them public exposure at his Napa art museum.

Barbara Stafford, a 15-year weaver, is one of many di Rosa has helped.

Last September, Stafford decided it was time to show her work to the public and signed on for the Napa Valley Open Studio tour, where local artists invite the public into their workspace. Student shows and studio tours are among di Rosa’s favorite ways to discover new artists, and Stafford couldn’t believe her eyes when di Rosa entered her studio on the last day of the tour. He quietly canvassed her weavings and pointed at one titled A Hairy Rug, woven from horse, goat, and llama hair. “That one,” he said, purchasing the work. And then he left.

“Just like that,” recalls Stafford, still amazed. “I haven’t really had great confidence in my work. The validation he gave me, and the impetus to continue, is such a gift. I thank him for that.”

Stafford’s work joins 2,000 other art objects in di Rosa’s collection—most of them paintings, photographs, and sculptures—which represents more than 700 area artists. Di Rosa limits his collection to northern California art to keep it regional. Many larger pieces are permanently displayed, while new works and old favorites rotate on a regular basis.

Now in his 80s, di Rosa, born in Boston and a Yale graduate, lived in Europe as a young man before moving to San Francisco as a newspaper reporter in the 1960s. Following a passion to work the land, however, he moved to Napa, purchased 460 acres, and began growing grapes. Di Rosa’s offbeat approach to life is reflected in his determination to successfully grow pinot noir grapes on difficult terrain. He not only succeeded, but the pinot noir grape cultivation continues to this day.

While learning about viticulture (grape cultivation) at the University of California in Davis, di Rosa began forming the nucleus of his associations with artists whose work he began to purchase. For small amounts of money, he found he could help support new and as yet unacknowledged artists. To finance his burgeoning passion, di Rosa sold all but 50 acres of his vineyards in 1986 and, along with his wife—artist Veronica di Rosa—began devoting his life to collecting.

The preserve consists of a 116-year-old stone winery—di Rosa’s former residence and later a gallery—several newer buildings, lush gardens, and a 35-acre lake in a picturesque setting. Dozens of peacocks wander freely on the grounds and a passenger bus-like tram travels from building to building, as guides conduct tours and answer questions about the preserve and its art.

Di Rosa often quietly appears at the start of a tour and gives his own take on the preserve. He stays to answer questions but mostly to experience visitors’ reactions. “My greatest pleasure is seeing the public smile when they see a piece and also to see them weep. Then I know my collection is truly resonating with them.”

Di Rosa feels a personal connection with his art collection. “I’ve never sold a piece I’ve collected. How could I?” he admits. “I feel the same affection for the artist and the work as the day it arrived and couldn’t possibly say goodbye.”

William Allan, an internationally recognized painter from San Rafael, Calif., says di Rosa “is as close to being an artist as you can get without being one. It’s his passion that makes the preserve such a joyous place.”