Against the Motion

What’s in a name?

In this particular case, a great deal. The Sonoma Valley Museum of Art came into being 20 years ago this fall. The organizing committee gave very vigorous attention to choosing a name that conveyed the mission of the organization and that linked its identity with a very special place and a unique community. Several of us were fortunate to be on that committee and we believed that there was a significant portion of the population that desired an opportunity to participate in high quality, innovative, interesting art programming. We were proven right as the membership grew in 5 years to be the largest visual arts membership organization in the North Bay region. The support was deep enough and strong enough to enable the museum to purchase a building and design and build a world class facility. Cleary the name was not a limiting factor.

SVMA has hosted exhibits by Auguste Rodin, Francisco Goya, Mark di Suvero, Ansel Adams, Sandow Burke, Pablo Picasso, Richard Diebenkorn, David Hockney, William Wiley and many other artists of national and international renown. Clearly the name was not a limiting factor.

In fact, you could say that the programming of the museum has expanded the already considerable reputation of Sonoma Valley. Some of the programming attracted the attention of the New York Times. VIA, the AAA magazine, also featured SVMA, as did Sunset magazine.

In a geography class, I can concede a limitation for the designation of “valley”. As a proper name, however, there is no limitation whatsoever. And given 20 years of association with a dynamic and ascendant community full of dedicated supporters, it is a very valuable modifier. It is an asset that contains the promise of a still brighter future and should be protected.

It was, and still is, important to differentiate this museum from others in the county. The specificity of the name makes a real distinction. The perpetual problem of confronting the persistent conflation of Sonoma, Sonoma County and Sonoma Valley is not solved by removing “Valley” from the name of the museum, it exacerbates it. Being a slightly shorter name does not make it significantly easier to use nor make the name more memorable. It is the quality of the programming that will make SVMA more memorable

Given 20 years of existence in the Valley, common sense dictates that there must be a compelling reason to change the identity of the organization. What is the problem that will be solved by changing the name?

At one time the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art had over 1000 members. Today the membership is around 650. That is a problem. But that problem won’t be solved by changing the name.

A new mission statement, calling for “building community around Art” is a worthwhile objective, but it doesn’t feel very community minded to reject 20 years of goodwill as a first step. Changing the name will not help build community.

Internet presence and a functional website are essential to any enterprise today, but search engine optimization depends on content, not the name. Taking ‘Valley” out of the name will not improve the website’s performance or its placement in searches.

Like changing the mission statement, every new cohort of directors seeks to change the logo. Refresh and modernize the image, if you must. Change the logo, not the name.

We would all like to see the reach and influence of the organization expanded. So, develop a strategy to promote the programming in a larger market, using the name and identity which already has a significant reputation. Try to improve on that reputation. It is seldom a winning strategy to reduce your hand. Changing the name diminishes the value of the organization.

We members of the founding board were excluded from the strategic planning sessions that produced this current plan of action, though we had participated in several strategic planning sessions before. We designed and conducted successful capital campaigns, developed strategies for increasing membership levels and participation, began programs to encourage legacy giving and build an endowment to help fund the museum in the future. Subsequent boards have expanded and improved upon those principles. Changing the identity of the organization was never considered a necessary or desirable element of any strategy to improve the organizational or financial health of the museum. It still should not be.

Because, when developing the early fundraising strategies we learned that continuing support relies on building relationships more than writing checks. We essentially sold an idea of a museum that exists within this community, and that has a clear mission and identity. We implicitly agreed to enhance the quality of life for all the citizens in our community through Art. Divorcing the identity of the museum from the Valley clearly violates those agreements and risks the good faith of future fundraising efforts. Fewer people will be willing to give support to a program, or a mission, or an identity that is likely to be abandoned at the next board election.

We would all like to see the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art thrive. We support the intention to expand the reach and influence of the institution. We encourage upgrading the website performance and refreshing the logo. All these things are within the purview of the board, in fact, that is their duty. Changing the identity of the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art requires the support of the membership because it is fundamentally our duty, as members, to safeguard the identity of OUR museum.

Please join us in voting NO

Because we believe that every citizen is a stakeholder in the identity of our community we encourage you to go to There you will find a list of concerned citizens.Some are members of SVMA, some are former members, some are artists, some are donors to the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art. All of them believe the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art should retain its name.

There you will also find a form where you can add your name to the list.

Jim and Stanley Abercrombie talk about the beginnings of SVMA
(from the film Raven Awakens)

One Comment

  1. Karin Niehoff

    Try these place names if they had art museums without the word valley …
    Only 10 probably more ~

    The Death Valley Museum of Art

    The Loir Valley Museum of Art

    The Central Valley Museum of Art

    The Yosemite Valley Museum of Art

    The Lehigh Valley Museum of Art

    The Valley Girls Museum of Art

    The Hudson Valley Museum of Art

    The San Fernando Valley Museum of Art

    The Silicon Valley Museum of Art

    The Sun Valley Museum of Art

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