BERKELEY -- It took a herd of sheep, a life-altering conversion, dozens of internationally renowned contemporary artists and 28 years, but the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive has netted a pair of big fish for the annual gala on May 7.

Nancy and Steve Oliver may go down in history as the most ironically reluctant honorees an arts organization has ever celebrated. If the Oakland (Steve) and Detroit (Nancy) natives weren't head-over-heels, cartwheeling-for-art pioneers, they'd be 70 miles north of the Bay Area at their Oliver Ranch in Sonoma County.

It was 28 years ago, after land they purchased to house their daughter's 4-H project-gone-wrong had led them to become inadvertent, successful organic lamb providers, that the couple began an odyssey of art unlike any other on the planet.

"There's a gentleman in Italy, but he did eight or 10 works at a get-go," Steve says. "And a man in New Zealand has a great big outdoor space, but it's not as crazy as what we've done."

The couple's 100-acre property is now defined by 18 site-specific installations the Olivers commissioned from local and national artists. Beginning with Judith Shea's "Shepherd's Muse" and traveling through a miraculous, surreal, history of modern art landscape, Oliver Ranch houses made-for-the-space art by Terry Allen, Bruce Nauman, Ellen Driscoll, Ann Hamilton and others.

It's not loopy; it's legendary.

And it wouldn't have happened without laundry.

"My father taught art at UC Berkeley," Steve explains, "but my goal was to drive race cars. My wife made a deal with me: I'd have my hobby and she'd work until our youngest son was 5 and in school, then she'd finish her art degree. She even wrote it down."

When the moment arrived, he remembers she brought out the paper and said, "Next Tuesday and Thursday, you do the laundry."

Steve's construction company business boomed, Nancy dragged him kicking and screaming to art museums, and a conversion began.

"I went through the three stages of contemporary art appreciation: That looks like a pile of candy in a corner; even I can do that; anger becomes curiosity," Steve says with a laugh.

Soon, he was hooked and began to invite artists to respond to the gently cantilevered hills, clustering native trees and scruffy, unadulterated fields.

"Some people just think big and act larger" might explain the voracious appetite he and Nancy have developed for the visual world. Inside their ranch home, post-World War II drawings, Northern California figurative art and lately, Nancy's interest in 17 and 18th century art decorates the walls. Outside, Steve leads tours (all ticket sales benefit selected nonprofits) and he and Nancy commission visiting performing artists to create works in Hamilton's iconic, acoustic performance space masterpiece, "The Tower."

In the Bay Area, their influence is titanic; sitting on art, academic and health organization boards, acting as docents at museums and supporting artists' evolving visions.

But in conversation, Steve says his preference is for less input, less presence.

"I'd say to the artists, 'You dream, we'll build it.' There is no doubt; the brightest people are in the arts," he says. "Some artists push back and use tools that are a step ahead of the cave man; some, 20th century chain saws. The great artists of our generation are inspired by challenges."

It's a pretty long speech for a man whose heart beats according to the land and whose long-ago impulse still seems to surprise him. Perhaps he's warming up for the gala, and indeed, a mention of the guest artists makes him sound downright jovial about the upcoming affair.

Artist/songwriter Terry Allen; artist/writer/actress Jo Harvey Allen; visual artist/choreographer Joe Goode; the Pacific Mozart Ensemble, and artist Ann Hamilton will make guest appearances. A live auction will feature original art.

Long after any acceptance speech Nancy and Steve are strong-armed into delivering, the Olivers will keep on giving. A 2009 partnership between the Community Foundation Sonoma County and the Oliver Ranch Foundation means the land and its family of sculptures will remain in local hands into perpetuity.

For gala information and tickets, visit bampfa.berkeley.edu/gala.

If you go
For gala information and tickets, visit bampfa.berkeley.edu/gala.