University artwork burned at Sonoma State president’s home tied to sex harassment scandal
Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki and her husband often tell the harrowing story of how they escaped with their lives amid choking smoke and burning embers as flames destroyed their home and all their possessions during the 2017 Tubbs fire.
Sakaki recounted the experience again last week in a video presented to the Academic Senate before it decided to push ahead with a motion of no confidence in her leadership amid 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 has not discussed widely — is that nearly $85,000 in artwork donated to the university for public viewing and educational purposes was among the items destroyed when the massive wildfire burned her home to the ground.
The destruction of the artwork and the push by McCallum to hang additional art from the university’s collection in their replacement homes became a key issue in the sexual harassment reports against the president’s husband that recently sparked a scandal threatening the president’s leadership, records and interviews show.
The allegations against Sakaki and her husband have roiled the campus in California wine country and sparked renewed criticism over how the largest four-year public university system in the nation investigates and resolves sexual harassment and workforce retaliation complaints — a controversy that has shaken California State University’s leadership ranks and led its chancellor to step down in February. Sonoma State’s faculty starts voting this week on a motion of no confidence in Sakaki’s leadership. Citing Los Angeles Times investigations, 44 state lawmakers have called for a systemwide audit of how sexual harassment allegations involving employees are investigated as well as payouts made to top executives.
After the Tubbs fire, tensions surfaced at Sonoma State about displaying more artwork in Sakaki and McCallum’s private residences, something that was not “within the customary deployment” of the university’s art collection, according to legal settlement records reviewed by The Times. An employee who visited the couple’s home numerous times 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 “creepy,” according to the records.
Weeks after Sonoma State’s president criticized the CSU’s sex harassment response, she herself is embroiled in scandal, with faculty revolting against her.
McCallum became frustrated that the process was not moving fast enough and questioned whether Sakaki’s Cabinet, or leadership team, had to vote on installing the artwork, according to allegations in the settlement records. A top university leader said she overheard him telling two women on staff: “I sleep with the head of the Cabinet, so I basically am on the Cabinet and get a vote, and I vote for the art,” according to the records.
The acrylic, mixed-media and watercolor images lost in the fire were part of the largest gift of art in the history of Sonoma State, valued at more than $2 million. The Benziger Family Winery, a Sonoma Valley institution, donated the collection of about 450 pieces in 2015 so that the images would remain together and be displayed in prominent public spaces on campus, according to donation documents the university released in response to a California Public Records Act request by Times reporters.
Joe Benziger, who helped arrange the donation, told The Times that he had heard secondhand from faculty friends that some artwork had been destroyed but that the family never received an official accounting from Sakaki or other Sonoma State administrators.
“It was meant to stay at the university,” he said of the artwork. “We didn’t even keep it for our home.”
Eighteen pieces of art were destroyed at Sakaki’s home, including a piece of calligraphy by the artist Wang Dongling valued at $15,900; a mixed-media work by the late artist Nancy Graves valued at $12,900; and an oil on masonite painting by the artist Joseph Maruska valued at $5,400, records show.
Sonoma State officials sought to recoup the loss, filing an insurance claim shortly after the wildfire, according to the records. Flames from the blaze did not reach the campus.
In a written response, a university spokeswoman said the art was on loan to Sakaki to display in her home because she often hosts events that benefit the campus. The spokeswoman, Julia Gonzalez, said the university received an insurance claim payment for the “value of the artwork” and that no Sonoma State art was installed in the couple’s homes after the blaze.
The accounts about the sexual harassment allegations and the tensions over hanging the artwork in Sakaki’s home were documented in records related to a legal claim filed by Lisa Vollendorf, a former provost at Sonoma State.
CSU paid $600,000 to settle a former Sonoma State provost’s legal claim that she suffered retaliation after reporting sexual harassment by the university president’s husband.
A Times investigation last month detailed how California State University paid $600,000 to settle the claim, which alleged that Vollendorf faced retaliation from Sakaki, her boss, after she reported to top Cal State officials that several women had accused McCallum of unwanted touching and making sexual comments.
Sakaki and McCallum have said they did nothing wrong, and Sakaki described the retaliation accusations as “utterly without basis.” Sakaki later announced that she had separated from her husband after he sent emails criticizing Vollendorf and news reports about the scandal, communications that Sakaki called “inaccurate and unauthorized.”
The Benziger family purchased its ranch in 1980 in Glen Ellen, a bucolic community in the heart of the Sonoma Valley. The multigenerational family business became a leader in biodynamic, sustainable and organic wine production.
In the early 1980s, Joe Benziger met Bob Nugent, a renowned local artist and art professor at Sonoma State, when they broke up a fight at a polo match. They became friends and came up with the idea of commissioning contemporary art for Benziger wine bottles.
For more than three decades, hundreds of artists created original pieces, the only requirement being that the works incorporated the Parthenon. A re-creation of the Greek temple was on the property when it was purchased by the family.
“We thought it would be a really cool thing to tie all the art together and the property,” Benziger told The Times.
The collection, which featured prominent artists such as Sol LeWitt, Robert Arneson and Squeak Carnwath, became too large for the family to display.
Benziger said the family wanted to keep the collection together and believed that Sonoma State, which his daughters attended, would be an ideal location because it had ample public spaces and was developing 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 public to enjoy it,” Benziger said. “We also wanted it to be used as a teaching tool for up-and-coming students.”
In an interview, Nugent said benefiting the students was “one of the major reasons” behind the donation.
In a thank-you letter, a former Sonoma State vice president who directed fundraising assured the family that the university would be “proud and most grateful to display an art collection of this caliber and 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 to the gift: “collection to be kept together.”
In March 2016, Sonoma State announced the gift in a news 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 release, “for the students to have a large collection to study and use to organize exhibitions.”
Last week, as Sakaki fought to restore confidence in her leadership before the Academic Senate, she drew on the Tubbs fire as a reminder that Sonoma State is her home.
“I was forced to abandon everything I owned as I fled from that house in the midst of intense fires, explosions and smoke,” she said of the wildfire, which killed 22 people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes.
After the devastation, McCallum pushed to have artwork installed in the couple’s new residence, according to the settlement records.
Vollendorf alleged in the records that McCallum made sexually harassing comments during discussions about the university art collection and that some staff were uncomfortable with placing the art in the couple’s private homes after the fire.
“A significant amount of tension surrounded the discussions about displaying the art at their private residences since this was not within the customary deployment of SSU’s art collection and since a large portion of a donated private collection had burned in 2017 at the home,” according to the records.
Vollendorf, who said she had overheard the McCallum comments about sleeping “with the head of the Cabinet,” reported that staffers “found Mr. McCallum’s statements connecting sex, power and influence to be offensive and disturbing.”
The allegations were among the reports of sexual harassment that Vollendorf said she passed along to the chancellor’s office. Cal State system officials acknowledged that they did not launch a formal investigation into the sexual harassment claims and instead spoke to Sakaki about the accusations against her husband.
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