Art burned at Sonoma state president’s home linked to scandal

Judy Sakaki, president of Sonoma State University, and her husband often tell the harrowing story of how they escaped with their lives amidst the choking smoke and burning embers as flames destroyed their home and all of their possessions in the 2017 Tubbs fire.

Sakaki recounted the experience again last week in a video shown to the Academic Senate before he decided to move forward with a motion of no confidence in his leadership amidst a campus. sexual harassment and retaliation scandal involving the president and her husband, lobbyist Patrick McCallum.

What Sakaki didn’t say in the video — and didn’t discuss it much — is that nearly $85,000 worth of artwork donated to the university for public viewing and education were among the items destroyed when the massive wildfire set her house ablaze.

The destruction of the artwork and McCallum’s pressure to hang additional artwork from the university’s collection in their alternate homes became a key issue in reports of sexual harassment against the president’s husband who recently sparked a scandal threatening the president’s leadership, tapes and interviews show.

The allegations against Sakaki and her husband have rocked the California wine country campus and sparked fresh criticism of how the nation’s largest four-year public university system investigates and resolves complaints of sexual harassment and workplace retaliation. — a controversy that has rattled the ranks of CSU’s leadership. and led his chancellor to resign in February. Sonoma State faculty begin voting this week on a motion of no confidence in Sakaki’s leadership. Citing the Los Angeles Times investigations, 44 state lawmakers called for a system-wide audit of how sexual harassment allegations involving employees are investigated as well as payments made to senior executives.

After the Tubbs fire, tensions have surfaced in Sonoma State over the display of more artwork at the private residences of Sakaki and McCallum, which was not “as part of the usual deployment” of the university’s art collection, according to court filings reviewed by The Times. An employee who repeatedly visited the couple’s home to assess how and where to hang the art reported that McCallum made her feel uncomfortable, describing him as “a dirty old man”, a “pervert” and “scary,” according to the records.

McCallum became frustrated that the process was not moving fast enough and wondered whether Sakaki’s cabinet, or the management team, should vote on installing the artwork, according to settlement records. . He was overheard by a senior university executive telling two female staff members: ‘I sleep with the Chief of Cabinet, so I’m basically Cabinet and I get a vote, and I vote for art “, according to the records.

The acrylic, mixed-media and watercolor images lost in the fire were part of the largest art donation in Sonoma State University’s history, valued at more than $2 million. dollars. The Benziger Family Winery, a Sonoma Valley institution, donated the collection of about 450 pieces in 2015 so the images would stay together and be displayed in prominent public spaces on campus, according to documents from donation that the university released in response to a California Public Records. Request for action by the Times reporters.

Joe Benziger, who helped organize the donation, told The Times that he heard from college friends that some artwork had been destroyed, but the family never received an official account. of Sakaki or other Sonoma State administrators.

“He was supposed to stay in college,” he said of the artwork. “We didn’t even save it for our house.”

Eighteen works of art were destroyed at Sakaki’s home, including a calligraphy by artist Wang Dongling worth $15,900; a mixed media work by the late artist Nancy Graves valued at $12,900; and an oil on hardboard painting by artist Joseph Maruska valued at $5,400, according to records.

Sonoma state officials sought to recoup the loss, filing an insurance claim shortly after the wildfire, records show. Flames from the fire did not reach the campus.

In a written response, a university spokeswoman said the art was loaned to Sakaki for display at her home, as she often hosts events that benefit the campus. Spokeswoman Julia Gonzalez said the university received an insurance claim payment for the “value of the artwork” and that no Sonoma state artwork was released. had been installed in the couple’s homes after the fire.

Accounts of the sexual harassment allegations and the tensions surrounding the hanging of the artwork in Sakaki’s home have been documented in filings related to a lawsuit filed by Lisa Vollendorf, a former provost of the Sonoma State.

A time survey last month detailed how California State University paid $600,000 to settle the claim, which alleged Vollendorf suffered retaliation from Sakaki, his boss, after he reported to senior CSU officials that several women had accused McCallum of unwanted touching and sexual comments.

Sakaki and McCallum said they had done nothing wrong, and Sakaki described the accusations of retaliation as “completely baseless”. Sakaki later announced that she had separated from her husband after sending emails criticizing Vollendorf and reporting on the scandal, communications which Sakaki called “inaccurate and unauthorized”.

The Benziger family purchased their ranch in 1980 in Glen Ellen, a bucolic community in the heart of the Sonoma Valley. The multi-generational family business has become a leader in the production of biodynamic, sustainable and organic wine.

In the early 1980s, Joe Benziger met Bob Nugent, a renowned local artist and art professor at Sonoma State University, when they broke up a fight at a polo game. They became friends and had the idea to order contemporary art for Benziger wine bottles.

For more than three decades, hundreds of artists have created original pieces, with the only requirement being that the works incorporate the Parthenon. A reconstruction of the Greek temple stood on the property when it was purchased by the family.

“We thought it would be a really cool thing to tie all the art and property together,” Benziger told The Times.

The collection, which included prominent artists such as Sol LeWitt, Robert Arneson and Squeak Carnwath, grew too large for the family to display.

Benziger said the family wanted to keep the collection and thought Sonoma State, where her daughters frequented, would be a great place because it had ample public spaces and was growing its wine business management program. With the help of Nugent, who curated the collection, they donated the art to the university in late 2015, about six months before Sakaki arrived.

“We wanted the audience to enjoy it,” Benziger said. “We also wanted it to be used as a teaching tool for promising students.”

In an interview, Nugent said benefiting students was “one of the main reasons” for the donation.

In a letter of thanks, a former Sonoma State vice president who led the fundraiser assured the family that the university would be “proud and very grateful to exhibit an art collection of this caliber. and this diversity in our new Wine Spectator learning center, the University Art Gallery and the Schultz Information Center.

In a donation acceptance document, the university acknowledged a key restriction on donation: “the collection to be kept together.”

In March 2016, Sonoma State announced the donation in a press release. The university noted that the pieces would be displayed in campus galleries and other spaces for the public to enjoy.

“It will be wonderful,” a university official said in the statement, “if students have a large collection to study and use to organize exhibitions.”

Last week, as Sakaki struggled to restore confidence in her leadership before the Academic Senate, she leaned on the Tubbs fire to remind her that Sonoma State is her home.

“I was forced to abandon everything I owned as I fled this house amid intense fires, explosions and smoke,” she said of the wildfire, which took place. killed 22 people and destroyed over 5,000 homes.

After the devastation, McCallum lobbied for artwork to be installed in the couple’s new residence, according to settlement records.

Vollendorf alleged in the filings that McCallum made sexually harassing comments during discussions about the university’s art collection and that some staff were uncomfortable placing art in homes. deprived of the couple after the fire.

“Significant tension surrounded discussions of exhibiting art in their private residences, as it was not part of the usual deployment of SSU’s art collection and since much of a given private collection had burned down in 2017 at home,” according to the records.

Vollendorf, who said he heard McCallum’s comments about sleeping “with the Chief of Staff,” reported that staffers “found Mr. McCallum’s statements linking sex, power and influence offensive and disturbing”.

The allegations were part of reports of sexual harassment that Vollendorf said he forwarded to the chancellor’s office. Cal State officials acknowledged that they did not launch a formal investigation into the sexual harassment allegations and instead spoke to Sakaki about the charges against her husband.

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