February 2, 2006
Funds for the arts
by KATHERINE ALMY
A little more than a month ago, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors announced the recipients of six grants from the Headwaters Fund, a pool of money allocated to improve "economic prosperity and quality of life for all Humboldt County residents," according to the "History of the Headwaters Fund" page on the Headwaters Fund website. The Headwaters Fund committee has identified nine "Industry Clusters," Arts & Culture being one of them -- one of the six grants this year went to that cluster, via the North Coast Open Studios tour (NCOS).
The Industry Clusters consist of groups of related businesses that bring money into the county through sales to customers outside the county. The process, in my own little nutshell, is that representatives from the clusters get together and talk about their hopes and dreams for their particular industry. Grant proposals are written, and the Board of Supes tries to determine which projects would be most helpful to Humboldt County as a whole. Not everybody is happy with the chosen grant recipients. In the Dec. 22 issue of the Advocate, an article on the subject tells us that a David Elsebusch of McKinleyville referred to the arts project as "fluff." I beg to differ, which gives me the opportunity to go off on one of my favorite rants, so here goes.
Excuse me, if art is fluff, why is it that you can be imprisoned for producing it in places like China or Saudi Arabia? Any dictator worth his salt clamps down on the "fluff" producers before the dust of his military takeover settles. If it's fluff, why do people all over the world spend so much time and energy preserving it, caring for it, interpreting it and trying to understand it? Why is it that every human culture past or present, in all corners of the world, has engaged in the practice of art?
I actually get a little tired of defending the arts by bringing up the economic value of it, or talking about grade school students whose math scores improve after studying the arts. To heck with math -- art is important in and of itself! Every thought, emotion, concern, triumph, tragedy, revolution, passion or joy that ever crossed a human mind has been expressed through the arts, in one form or another. Indeed, artistic expression is the only way to articulate such things. But having said all that, the arts are a damn good money-maker. Which makes Mr. Elsebusch's argument that this grant doesn't support Humboldt County economy a little ridiculous.
Much has been made of the fact that Humboldt County has one of the highest per capita populations of artists in the country. There are a remarkable number of people around here trying to make a living out of some form of craft or creation. Imagine, if you will, what our economy would be like if all of those people were making a good living.
That's what Angie Schwab does every day. She's very good at thinking up and implementing strategies for making that vision a reality. Angie is the owner of Humboldt Artworks, and she's also been working with the NCOS since they got their first Headwaters grant last year. The Open Studios tour began in the '90s, when Sasha Pepper and Susan Fox, who had participated in tours in other areas, decided to try it here. They headed up a group of tireless artists who worked to make the event a success. It continued on, growing steadily larger, until it got a big boost last year with the grant and with the addition of Angie, who could devote enough energy to the project to take the burden off of some of the volunteers.
The tour attracts primarily local devotees and buyers of art, which is great. But one thing that many of the local artists and artisans struggle with is attracting out-of-town buyers. I have heard many of them say that their best market is outside of the area. This being the case, and the goal of the Headwaters Fund being to attract outside dollars, made the NCOS a prime candidate for a Headwaters grant. The grant isn't simply supporting the tour as it was, it allows the NCOS group to develop larger scale marketing strategies, attracting a wider audience from farther-flung destinations. Last year they focused on increasing artist participation, increasing attendance and sales, providing business education to artists and measuring the results of their efforts. They produced a website, a full-color map brochure and expanded the tour to two weekends.
Of course, with growth come potential problems. I was able to speak to two artist participants about the new direction. Joy Dellas has participated in every one of the tours so far, and she was enthusiastic about the changes. She's pleased with the effect of making the arts recognized as a valuable asset to Humboldt County economy. Alan Sanborn's also been part of the tour since the get-go, but remains more neutral about the changes. He recognizes the benefit of the increased professionalism, and especially likes having someone like Angie who can focus on the administrative details, leaving the artists to focus on their art. Has he seen a big change in the crowd that comes to his studio? Well, no. It's still the most important weekend of the year for him, as far as sales go, but the recent changes haven't had much impact yet, either way. But it's only been one year -- perhaps 2006 will mark a real upward trend in sales.
There are always trade-offs with growth. One possible negative that I see is losing the kind of down-home, grassroots appeal of the tour as it was. I'm all for increasing the profile of the artists in our area, helping them to attract a wider audience and helping the economy of the county by marketing the amazing talent that lives and works here. I do hope though, that we're able to keep the "Humboldtness" of the event as it grows and reaches out to the rest of the world. To find out more about the NCOS and to check on the dates of this year's tour (still pending), check out their website at www.northcoastopenstudios.com.
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