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Sally Arnot: Cheerleader for the arts


"I THINK THIS COMMUNITY IS SO LUCKY to have somebody who has devoted so many years of her life to the arts, and the proof of that was when she was appointed by the governor to the California Arts Commission ... really an honor," notes Floyd Bettiga, artist and former arts teacher at College of the Redwoods. "I think she's just remarkable."

Close friend Muriel Dinsmore says: "She's the greatest and most dedicated volunteer I've ever met. She has been a constant force in the arts since 1971, and maybe even before that."

Her nomination two years ago for the Selina Roberts Ottum Award (she finished third in a highly competitive national field) noted that she is "an effervescent and enthusiastic public speaker" and her "driving dedication" led the Humboldt Art Council's heroic efforts to earthquake retrofit and preserve Eureka's historic Carnegie building.

Sally Arnot.
[photo of Sally Arnot]Top photo: Sally Arnot in the center of the restored Carnegie rotunda.

Her husband, Eureka attorney Phillip M. Arnot, says simply: "She's got more energy than anybody I know."

The lady of course is Sally Watson Arnot, patroness of the arts who herself has a bachelor of arts degree from Humboldt State University (1984, with an emphasis on art history), and whose list of awards and past-and-present professional affiliations might put to shame any Who's Who candidate. She's a Rotarian, chair of the Eureka Arts and Culture Commission, emeritus member of the Humboldt Arts Council and founder of the Humboldt Docent Council, a volunteer group dedicated to guiding children to art appreciation.

She was appointed by former Gov. George Deukmejian (in 1987) to a four-year term on the California Arts Council, served five years on the former Bank of Loleta's board of directors and put in 12 years (from 1980 to 1992) on the Humboldt State University Advisory Board.

As Sally explains the last post: "The Advisory Board puts on the President's Ball every year, for one thing, which raises a sum of money, which then Alistair (McCrone, HSU prexy) can use to do receptions and give plaques and things that there is no money for. I felt that my presence there was important because of the arts and I think that's why he appointed me."

If there were any controversial ideas broached during that 12-year period, she couldn't remember them. She does, however, think the non-academic public is sometimes "intimidated to go on campus -- getting a parking place, finding your way, that sort of thing," and President McCrone "has always wanted the school to have a good partnership with the community."

[photo of Phillip Arnot] Phillip M. Arnot

She notes that the Humboldt Cultural Center, functioning under the Arts Council, had a series of Friday night concerts, at which members of the HSU music faculty were noticeably present. "It was a wonderful meeting of the school and the arts community," she recalls. And now there is HSU's First Street Gallery in Eureka, which she cites as the university's "first big outreach from the visual arts department into the community."

We are sitting in the living room of the Arnot home on Eureka's Quaker Street, where the art presence is overwhelming. Facing one wall practically awash in framed paintings, I am reminded of a comment by Debbie Goodwin, executive director of the Humboldt Arts Council and an unabashed tub-thumper for Sally Arnot: "There's no square inch (of the Arnot home) that's not committed to framing a piece of art from an artist in Humboldt County. And Sally herself is a very good artist."

On this day Arnot, a blue-eyed, silvery blond who exudes a perky charm, is elegantly dressed (surely not for me, but for a later appointment she has that morning) in a black, pin-striped pants suit, over a bright red-ribbed tunic. She gets up to point out some of the local artists on the wall -- including John Wesa, Max Butler, Leslie Price and a couple Sally Arnots as well -- then gives me a quick tour of the other art rooms, including photography in the family room; her Goya (one of three etchings purchased in Madrid) in another niche; and "tons of art" in the kitchen as well.

Husband Phil, whom I interview one afternoon in his law office where he has come from a physical therapy session (for a nagging back problem), still in his sweats, tells me: "We never get tired of viewing good art." But being a collector cum art aficionado can be a bit much, he acknowledges. "We did five museums in Paris one day," he remembers. "I was overwhelmed."

Sally says, "That's what happens when you're involved in something for so long."

But what's so important about ART? And it does seem to come in capital letters in this family. (At Phil Arnot's law office I note a poster in the window touting Sally's favorite project: "Save the Carnegie. Brick Buy Brick." And on a table in the reception room inside, a small stack of Palettes -- the Humboldt Arts Council's annual magazine).

Sally doesn't have to go into any lengthy cogitation to answer that: "I think it raises your spirit. It's good for your soul. The importance of art -- I remember one time Morris Graves said this, and it's so true -- `Everything that we touch in our lives began with an artist.' Artists designed cars, artists are architects who build houses, our clothing is an art work. Art is the very essence of our existence... I think art feeds the soul. And I think the way you live, the way you dress, everything has to do with your artistic nature."

(Morris Graves, arguably Humboldt County's most distinguished artist, has enriched the Arts Council with a gift of more than 100 art pieces representing "six decades of collecting," as Sally Arnot puts it. The collection is presently in storage, but the Arts Council plans to rotate it out of storage to gallery exhibits in the Carnegie).

She goes on to suggest that "a lot of our problems today" come from reducing the importance of art. "In the '60s, they started cutting art out of the schools. When I grew up, you know, there was more band and more art in the schools. And in the '60s they started having their (economic) crunches, and they kept, you know, `cutting the frills,'" She does the quote marks with her fingers to emphasize the point.

"And I think that's what is wrong with a lot of our society today. I think arts -- be it plays, dance, visual arts -- expressing yourself makes you feel good about yourself. I know they say it all the time: `Art builds self-esteem.' But it does. It teaches you how to be creative, how to look at a problem and analyze it, and make that quantum leap to an answer. And that's art."

Sally Arnot likes to tell the story of the late Homer P. Balabanis, professor emeritus in economics at HSU and founder, in 1966, of the Humboldt Arts Council.

"Dr. Balabanis," she says, "when he came here in the '20s, he felt that it was a cultural desert. We were so isolated and so far from the cosmopolitan centers, and we needed to create our own society here."

[photo of Homer Balananis with students] Homer P. Balabanis, founder of the Humboldt Arts Council, who came to Humboldt County in the 1920s,
called the North Coast a "cultural desert" and said
we needed to create a society here.

She adds: "What Homer said in the beginning, you need a strong art and culture community to bring professors here. He felt that it created a draw for business to come here. And I know that, because I worked with the Eureka Chamber of Commerce (board member 1993-1995), and businesses ask: `Culturally, what do you have to offer?' Businesses coming in don't want to come just to a cultural desert."

Certainly, we are well on the way to scrapping that ignominious designation, if the Humboldt Arts Council's figures are any measure.

It counts 103 arts organizations in Humboldt County. They vary from small groups, such as Chamber Readers and Feet First Dancers, and from fledgling organizations to the internationally known Dell Arte Players -- theater, music, visual arts, all the disciplines.

Debbie Goodwin, who came here from Hawaii to take on the executive director's post in January 1997, sees the Arts Council's job as helping to nurture the myriad other art groups in the area, "and to bring in talent from out of the area to keep high the level of cultural activity here." The aim, she says, is not to become a competing organization, but to "really and truly serve as an umbrella, as an arts council should."

She recognizes that it hasn't always been that way, because art of course is notorious for spawning what are politely termed personalities.

The reincarnated Carnegie Building, however, could perhaps assuage artistic temperaments.

It has in fact been the dream of the Arts Council --especially of such board members as Sally Arnot and Floyd Bettiga, who has been quoted as saying, "I'd like to see it before I'm dead" --this revamped old library building will be a first-class showplace for the arts.

Eureka's now historic Carnegie Library --of 2,800 endowed by the Scots-born American steel baron Andrew Carnegie -- opened in 1904, thanks to a $20,000 gift from Carnegie. It ceased being the city's library in 1972 when the city and county merged their library systems, and the library moved to the basement of the county Courthouse -- "which was horrible," as Sally Arnot recalls -- before settling into its new waterfront quarters at 1313 Third St.

In December 1995, as Sally Arnot recalls, the Arts Council negotiated a 60-year lease of the Carnegie building from the city, and took up temporary quarters there in February 1996. "We cleaned it up and dusted it off," Sally recalls.

Then began the arduous fund-raising campaign. One chunk of it -- $100,000 -- came in a grant from the Kresge Foundation. Debbie Goodwin has spent a good part of her time writing grant applications, an art in itself. Goodwin, who had her own non-profit in Hawaii, was "batting a thousand" in her first year on the job here, but now, she admits, she is getting a few rejections.

"For me," she says, explaining her philosophy about grant money, "it's transforming wealth, taking all that money that was made from lord knows what and in what ways, and now it's being put to good use for the public good."

You wouldn't argue with Sally Arnot that restoring and ennobling the beauty of the old Carnegie isn't a good work for the public good.

"It's gorgeous," she says of the beauty emerging from the work of the restoration project team --Jain as architect and Resco Construction as the rebuilders.

"They took up that old linoleum that was on the floors, and each room's a different wood, so what they figure is that probably when they were building it in 1904 someone gave them a load of oak, and someone gave them a load of cherry and someone gave them redwood. So one of our galleries is redwood; it's going to be quite lovely. (But no stiletto heels, women are warned.) And the new glass dome --this wonderful light."

It is expected to be formally rechristened as the Cultural Center and Regional Arts Museum, but, inevitably, as Sally Arnot observes, "It's probably always going to be `The Carnegie.'"

[photo of rotunda of building] The rotunda dome during the building's remodeling phase.

It will not only house the staff of the Humboldt Arts Council --temporarily encamped in the nearby Rick's House -- showcase the area's arts, but it will also be offered for rental to local groups.

"The city wants to use it a lot for showing off the arts or showing off the city," Arnot goes on. "Anyone who wants to come and rent it."

And "not necessarily" something associated with the arts, she adds.

"We've been criticized," she notes, "for renting to political candidates, but it wasn't that we were endorsing the political candidates. We were renting the facility."

With a laugh, she adds, "Well, we did it for both parties. We got a letter to the editor on one, criticizing us. But it didn't bother us, if it was a Republican or a Democrat, or if they wanted to do a wine tasting, we rented it. It's like a public building. And it will be a public building. Part of the reason that you rent a public building is to help you meet your budget."

The total cost of the renovation project --for completion this Sunday, Jan. 1, 2000 --put at $1.5 million -- "and that's just Phase I," as Debbie Goodwin notes. Phase II sets a fund-raising goal of $2 million for an endowment, to keep the facility staffed and operative.

So once again the art community's eyes will be on fund-raiser extraordinaire Sally Arnot, who is credited with much of the push in bringing in $1 million for Phase I.

"I've never known someone who keeps doing the work regardless of anything else," says Goodwin. "She's always kept a really positive point of view."

She remembers that last year there was an affair at the Eureka Inn acknowledging Sally Arnot's achievements, "and it was so great that she just went right on, `Thank you very much, but we still have $600,000 to raise for the Carnegie.'"

[photo of Debbie Goodwin] Debbie Goodwin

Goodwin also remembers the surprise party held in a gaily decorated Carnegie for Sally last year on her 60th birthday, "and 100 people came. We raised $4,000 for the Carnegie that night."

FOS --of Sally --sing her praises as a fund raiser, but Sally herself waves it aside.

She laughs lightly and says, "I've been, I guess, a cheerleader, so to speak, of the Arts Council and of the arts community."

This, mind you, is the woman who as a teenager had as one of her first jobs minding the concession counter at the old Eureka Theater. "I was the candy lady, the candy girl," she relates.

And it was there one night that Phillip Arnot, two years her senior, came by to ask if he might take her home that evening after work. Sally recalls: "I said, `No, my mother's over there; she's waiting to take me home. But you can take me home tomorrow night.'" And she bursts out in laughter.

"Oh yeah," says Phillip Arnot, smiling at the memory. "Sally was a senior in high school, and I was in my junior year at Humboldt State." He remembers suggesting on that next night that they go to the Morrow Drive-in, at Fifth and Broadway, for a cherry Coke and french fries with gravy. It was the "in" thing then with the "in" crowd, and that, as it turned out, was the start of something big.

[historical photo of Carnegie building] Historical photo of the Carnegie Library
which opened in 1904.

"We got engaged on Christmas of `56," Phil relates, "and married June 1, 1957."

In their early married years they moved to San Francisco, where Phil Arnot went to night school at Lincoln University, studying for the law, while Sally did title and real estate work -- a quick and impressive move up from her candy girl days. They were in The City about five years before moving back to Eureka. "This," says Phil Arnot, "was where we wanted to raise our family."

Phil Arnot was born in Los Angeles, but came north with his parents in 1944. His father, Maynard Arnot, was in the title insurance business, starting Humboldt Land Title.

Sally is a Eureka native, born in 1938, when her mother, Ida Sullivan Watson, was 23, and her father, Dick Watson, was 34.

Her father ran a succession of restaurants and bars in Eureka's Old Town -- the Fish Grotto, then the Bank Club, and a cafe on Fifth Street. Sally and her two younger brothers, Stephen Christopher, now a chiropractor in Los Altos, and Rick, a city council member in Gold Beach, Ore., grew up in a home in the 3500 block of F Street. "I remember my father bought this old Victorian and all this other land for, I think, like $4,500," she relates, laughing.

Sally, who reels off dates and events like an almanac, says it wasn't until 1969 that she became involved in art.

The Arts Council was incorporated in 1971, she relates, but it had already brought in the Western Opera Company during those early years and did a major touring art exhibit in one of the old buildings in Old Town.

"This was when Old Town was just beginning to be developed," she notes. "It was the type ... well, no one wanted to go down there, you know. It was the bars, that sort of thing." Having heard from the late Viola Russ McBride about Eureka's Two Street being the wildest street in the wildest town in the West, I knew of Old Town's earlier reputation.

"Oh," Sally goes on, "I can remember as a kid listening to Muzzy. I was dating Phil then. And the windows would always be open, and she'd be singing, and you could park on the street and listen to her risqué songs." She laughs. "Oh, Muzzy was a famous character in Old Town."

Sally recalls that she "was all set to do art at Humboldt State, and then I got married and pursued that portion of my life. Then in 1976 the kids were in grammar school (Michael, 35, is a chiropractor in Santa Rosa, and Stephen, 33, is an attorney working with his father in Eureka), and I thought, `You know, I'm gonna go back to Humboldt,' because I had started the Docent Council in '75, and I thought, `I want to know more about art..."

She pops up to answer a telephone ringing in another room, and comes back saying, "I'd taken art classes in San Francisco when we were there..." --the conversation right off as if it had never stopped --&nbsp"I had been pursuing my education along the way along with working, but then in earnest I did go back, and I graduated in '82."

That just happened also to be the year son Michael graduated from high school, and it was the Arnots' 25th wedding anniversary --&nbsp"So we took the boys to Wimbledon and to Paris."

Inevitably, however, she comes back to the Carnegie.

"We replaced the dome on the top, the building's been retrofitted, the basement of the building had never been completed," she bursts out. "That's all been done; we redid the heating, lighting, plumbing. It has now complete humidity and temperature control. So we can house a Rembrandt."

Which brings me up short. A Rembrandt?!

Unruffled, Sally says, "That's part of our goal, to bring some really wonderful traveling shows here."

She goes on, "We had a wonderful workshop a couple years ago. Peter Marsio, who is director of the Houston Fine Arts Museum, came here to meet with us and do a workshop on how to become a museum, what he feels museums are today. They're not just stiff cold facilities to house a collection. They should be alive, should be used every day, more like a cultural center. So that's the direction the Arts Council is going.

"It's been a long battle, and we are still fund raising." They may not have a Rembrandt yet, but it's no cultural desert either.

The Humboldt Arts Council figures there are about 6,000 artists in Humboldt County now, maybe more -- undoubtedly not all of them making most of their living from art, but artists of some sort. "And we have this grand scheme to call all the artists together next fall, and take an aerial photo of them on Clam Beach," says Debbie Goodwin. "Because we think it's a sustainable resource for Humboldt County."

Sally Arnot tells about the time a few years back when she took a group of visiting Chamber of Commerce directors on a tour of the area's galleries.

"And this director from one of our adjoining counties said, `I am just so impressed by the quality of your work here. We get lots of seascapes, and da-da-da-da-da. But the quality of what we're seeing here is something phenomenal.'"

Sally replied: "I feel that the artists in Humboldt County paint with their souls. They feel so strongly about that creative process; it's not just to paint a pretty picture to sell. Artists here really push themselves.

"So," she concludes, "I think they deserve to have a museum, and they deserve to be showcased. We are, you know, the No. 1 small art town in America."

Not that arts are going to be the growth industry of the future.

She concedes that "from the standpoint of the economy, they are never going to replace a natural-based industry like lumber and fishing" --of which incidentally are on the decline.

"BUT," she adds emphatically, "they are a part, a piece of the puzzle."


THE DIFFICULTY IN TRANSFORMING the Carnegie Library, circa 1900, into the Carnegie Cultural Center and Regional Art Museum 2000 involved more than a struggle to secure funding. Design aspects like tall windows allowing natural light are great for a library but the antithesis of what is desired for art gallery space, according to Debbie Goodwin, executive director of the Humboldt Arts Council (HAC).

"It took a whole year of dialogue, conversations, fights and tensions around the issue, `What are we?'" said Goodwin in a conversation at her old office in Rick's House, the Arts Council's temporary home during 1999.

[photos of contributors honored]"The Carnegie has a new life and purpose. One issue we faced was how can we accommodate that with those beautiful windows? The architects dealt with it by adding partition walls allowing an enormous amount of surface area for hanging space and protection from the light. So we have made it into a gallery museum space.

"Some people will probably go in there and say, `What happened to the windows?' The answer is, they're all still there. We did nothing to alter the original architectural integrity of the building. That was one thing that everyone -- the board, the architects, all of us -- said, `This is a work of art in itself, and it will remain that.'"

Goodwin said she is thrilled with the prospect of going to work every day in a beautiful space like the Carnegie. Once every brick is in place and the galleries are full of art, her day-to-day job will return to a more normal pace and she will be able to focus on overseeing the operation of a multifaceted museum.

"We're not really a museum yet," she admits. "We're becoming a museum. There's a difference between a gallery, museum and art center, but the lines blur. A museum has policies and procedures you adhere to, basically to protect the art in the best way possible.

"The obvious difference is a museum has its own permanent collection that it takes care of and shows to the public. And we do. We have a substantial repository of North Coast artists and it's growing. One of the rooms downstairs is strictly designed to accommodate the permanent collection."

The HAC has applied for accreditation to the American Association of Museums to gain official status and expects certification some time next year. Official or not, the museum is starting out with an impressive collection of shows featuring hundreds of pieces, mostly by local artists.

The building includes six gallery spaces inside and the Melvin Schuler Sculpture Garden outside with "Millennial Sculpture" on display. Each gallery has a separate theme and curator or curators.

"Most of the exhibits were chosen to honor the people who had contributed to the project," said Goodwin, "either in donations or in relation to their stature in the arts community.

 Canoe by Tony Sylvia in the Homer Balabanis Gallery.

"With the Dr. Richard Anderson Gallery, the donation was made by Elizabeth Anderson to honor her husband, a pediatrician, who was the first president of the Arts Council. He did a lot for bringing the arts to this community. He started the Art Banks in the schools and was very much a promoter of the arts for young people. We thought it was fitting that Artists of the Permanent Collection would go in that gallery. Floyd Bettiga is curating that show."

The Arts Council has an extensive collection of works spanning three decades. But instead of trying to pick an arbitrary "best of" for the inaugural show, it is doing something different. It has asked the artists who have work in the collection to bring in a current work.

"Over 66 artists are represented including local luminaries like Morris Graves, Joan Gold, Bruno Groth, Bob Benson, Richard Case, Richard Duning, Tom Klapproth, Mimi LaPlant, Libby Maynard, Karen Sullivan, John Swingdler and John Pound, who was responsible for the new Carnegie logo.

"We also have works by some distinguished out-of-the-area artists that will be on exhibit," said Goodwin. Mark Tobey and Leo Kenney are Northwest painters who are part of the extensive personal collection donated to the HAC years ago by artist Morris Graves.

[photo of painting] Painting by John Swingdler, "Dream Notations,"
in the Dr. Richard Anderson Gallery.

"Sean Thonson purchased the largest gallery to honor his father, William Thonson. He did an invitational, primarily inviting people who knew his father and other artists who he felt represented arts in Humboldt County. He's creating a website right now (www.thonson.com) and will be doing an online auction of these pieces, promoting it in Southern California where he resides.

"There are some photographers in the show from out of the area, but again he invited primarily local artists, people like Leslie Price, Mel Schuler, Mort Scott, Patricia Sennott, Glenn Berry, Lisa Marie Waters and George Van Hook."

The Tom Knight Mezzanine Gallery will feature a retrospective of works by Tom Knight assembled by his widow, Katie Knight, along with Richard Dunning and Bruce Van Meter. It will include images covering the long career of the photographer, a professor who inspired countless photographers in his years at Humboldt State University.

Plans for the mezzanine are to focus on shows of photographs and small prints. Among those scheduled in the first year are shows featuring Peter Hakanson and Gay Berrien.

[photo of painting] Painting by Glenn Berry, "Stairways," in the William Thonson Gallery.

"Floyd Bettiga has a gallery in his name at the main entrance. We're doing basically Northern Humboldt and Southern Humboldt artists. The Homer Balabanis Gallery show is `What Is Precious.' Cheg Lowery is curating that show and has brought in art work from all five tribes, 30 artists from the Yurok, Hupa, Karuk, Wiyott and Tolowa. It will be contemporary works from Brian Tripp, George Blake, Tony Sylvia and others. There will be paintings, some new baskets, regalia and artifacts, and a canoe.

"The Youth Gallery downstairs honors the young artists of our community. This is an annual exhibit we've been doing for many years. We opened it up to all students grades K-12 and have received some really exciting work, primarily 2-D, but also some sculpture. We didn't jury it; we're hanging everything that came in, so it will be on display here or at some alternative venues. Eureka Inn, Travel Advantage and Humboldt Bay Coffee Co. will all have some of the Young Artists of Humboldt Festival for Arts Alive! Jan. 8 and throughout January.

"This time it's all visual arts, but down the road we hope to turn it into a real festival with musical groups playing in the rotunda which is just a fabulous place. This will be a center for all the arts."

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