story & photos by BOB DORAN
WHAT'S THE FIRST THING THAT comes to mind when you hear the word art? A painting hanging on the wall in a gallery?
And what's the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the Humboldt Arts Council?
Probably the Morris Graves Museum of Art in the historic Carnegie Building across the intersection from another historic landmark, the Eureka Inn.
What many do not know is that the work that goes on in the Arts Council's basement offices goes far beyond running the art museum upstairs.
The Humboldt Arts Council is the lead agency administering something called the North Coast Cultural Trust, a collection of programs with a $1.4 million budget. For the last four years the NCCT has been sowing seed money for the arts in every corner of Humboldt County.
On Sunday the Arts Council is throwing a big party, the Harvest of the Arts, to showcase NCCT accomplishments with performances and displays -- the fruits of the labor by artists supported by grant funds. (See schedule)
But as Debbie Goodwin (photo below left), executive director of Humboldt Arts Council, prepares for the celebration, she is looking toward the future with a touch of apprehension. The primary funding for the NCCT came from a four-year grant and that grant is at the end of its cycle.
Goodwin is not someone stuck in the classic art mindset. She sees the arts moving in new directions and talks enthusiastically about what she calls her "new mantra" -- art as social intimacy.
"It's looking at communities and asking why they value the arts and what they do. Art is our meaning; it's how we connect on a deep, meaningful level. Community-based arts programming is a whole movement which is about how people serve each other."
Part of the concept is to shift the attitude toward art so that it's not thought of as something just for the elite.
"I don't have a formal arts education background, but I know that the way people have traditionally studied the arts is different with all the aesthetics and an isolationist kind of mindset where art is done for art's sake," said Goodwin.
"With high art you'd go a museum and you would have your own personal interaction with it. It was a very defined educational experience -- and that was it. It was held distinct from the rest of the world, an elevating experience.
"But when you look at the kinds of projects we've funded you see that art breaks out all over around here. It's a very different sort of expression. This is all about the other side of the arts where art is something that connects us, something that's part of our social structure."
The roots of the Humboldt Arts Council go back to 1966 when a group of artists and art lovers joined forces.
"It was a collective of people who really valued the arts and didn't want to be isolated behind the Redwood Curtain," said Goodwin.
The council incorporated in 1971 and began bringing art to area schools with a docent program. Before beginning the refurbishing of the Carnegie it ran a gallery/performance space called the Cultural Center. (The building has since become Humboldt State University's First Street Gallery.)
For a while the group changed its name to Association of Humboldt Artists. (Someone thought AHA was a cute acronym.) In 1987 the HAC became a partner of the California Arts Council.
"That was all way before my time," said Goodwin, who took over as executive director at the beginning of 1997.
"That was the year Lila Wallace came to town," she points out. "We were chosen to be the key administrator of that big initiative -- $1.4 million over four years."
When Goodwin says, `Lila came to town,' she does not mean literally. Lila Wallace and her husband Dewitt built a fortune with their little magazine, the Reader's Digest. While she was alive, Lila contributed generously to the arts and before she died in the 1980s, she established the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund.
Its mission is "to invest in programs that enhance the cultural life of communities and encourage people to make the arts and culture an active part of their everyday lives."
"The original philosophy [of the Wallace Fund] was to partner with community foundations to build their capacity to do art grant making, and have those grants be community-based," said Goodwin.
Humboldt County was one of 11 areas chosen to participate in an initiative called, Community Partnerships for Cultural Participation.
"We were one of three rural areas. The rest were metropolitan, places like Boston, Detroit, Kansas City. They were looking for ways to support arts programs that were not so much about the symphony and the opera and theatergoers, more about what we do here."
The $825,000 from Lila Wallace was supplemented by additional funding from the Humboldt Area Foundation and others. (See pie chart at the bottom of this article). By coincidence, the money became available just as the Arts Council was in the thick of its museum project.
"It was very much a time of change for the Arts Council. What was changing the most was the responsibility of the organization. It was mounting a major capital campaign to create the Morris Graves Museum of Art so the scope of its identity in the community -- and its fiscal responsibility -- were going through a huge shift."
The first phase of the museum project was completed at the end of 1999. The doors opened just in time to welcome the new millennium. Later that year it was dubbed the Morris Graves Museum of Art in honor of the legendary artist and HAC supporter, who spent the last 35 years of his life living and creating art in Loleta.
"Because of the museum we have been able to increase our own organizational budget," said Goodwin. "When I came on board it was less than $100,000 a year; we ran $629,000 through the organization last year. But it really does go way beyond managing a facility and an art museum."
HAC continues to run programs in the schools.
"The docent programs and the art banks are something we've been doing for 25 or 30 years now. Those were all strengthened through grant funding," Goodwin said.
The scope of the youth arts programs increased significantly. Money from the North Coast Cultural Trust and other grant funding supports Art for Youth and Families, a program run by Michelle McCall-Wallace with a budget that has grown from $60,000 a year to $170,000.
Where does all the money come from?
"It's divided into three major categories," Goodwin explained. "About a third comes from grants, a third from earned income -- ticket sales, sales of art -- and a third is through individual donations." [See Revenue Chart below]
Where does the money go?
"It goes to maintain this facility -- and the majority is spent on people. We have grown from a staff of two and a half to 10. It has taken time to facilitate this initiative, to send out the paper work on the grants and to do the bookkeeping and publicity.
"Michelle's program alone runs 19 after-school programs and I don't know how many community grants for the different geographical regions. All of those require enormous amount of administration.
"That's what we do here. When I interview people who want to come to work here, I say, `Don't think you're going to be making too much art. We're administrators. You are facilitating the work of artists.' It's very much a left-brain reality."
Goodwin conceded that the end of the Lila Wallace grant means working with a smaller budget and the belt-tightening may include cutting back on staff.
The NCCT's goal is to have a $10 million endowment by 2010. At this point it only has $1.5 million. And that's not the only endowment the Arts Council is looking at. There's still the upkeep and operation of the Morris Graves Museum to consider.
"Our initial goal [for the museum] was a $2 million endowment," said Goodwin. "The interest off that would cover basic facility costs and a part-time curator. But we're not there yet. That's why we're doing an auction (Nov. 4 at the Morris Graves) and we're doing brick and tile sales. We've done very well, but right now we're doing it year by year.
"We had a big learning curve coming into this building not knowing what it was going to cost. We've had some challenges with PG&E -- our electric rates went up 54 percent in June. There were things we hadn't planned for, but we're OK for this next year. We just approved a new budget and that seems pretty solid.
"But I'm a little bit concerned about the year after next. I worry about philanthropy based on world events. Didn't Congress just commit $40 billion for a war effort? I wonder if that means my $10,000 NEA grant isn't going to happen?
"About $65,000 in our [yearly] budget came from the Lila Wallace grant. We have found some additional funders to support the program. The Packard Foundation is there. We've got a renewal grant into the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Those are the larger national funders that will help us continue."
Goodwin says Humboldt County has developed a reputation for gleaning grant funding.
"Look at Dell'Arte. They're a cornerstone grant for the Irvine Foundation. They're with the big boys. United Indian Health Service got some major funding for its Potawat Village. The Mateel is getting big grants and the Arts Council. Ink People was ahead of the game years ago with an Irvine grant."
Goodwin says we have an advantage when it comes to grant writing. "It's pretty easy to tell our story. Philanthropy has to solve a problem and we have the right mix. We're isolated. We have poverty. We have a need to fill. There are problems with our society and our environment.
"I think all of these arts projects are part of the business of restoring our society and the environment. A lot of these projects are about healing -- healing people or bringing them together, giving people tools, building self esteem in kids."
There are dozens of arts organization in Humboldt County, all of them looking for donors and throwing fund-raisers. With local money scarce, competition has been a constant.
Goodwin says that is changing. As an example she points to the fact that Libby Maynard, executive director of the Ink People, sits on the Arts Council board. While their areas of interest may overlap, Goodwin sees the goals of the two groups as complimentary.
"The Ink People is much more hands-on, encouraging artists and helping organizations become fundable. We work together and, I'd have to say, it hasn't always been that way. That's one of the things that came out of all our planning. We started distinguishing our niches, figuring what we do and how we can all work together in partnerships.
"Our focus [at the Arts Council] is on financial resources -- and that's why this whole North Coast Cultural Trust movement is at our forefront. We want to make sure the North Coast Cultural Trust is a reality so there's a local endowment fund to support these programs. When you have scarce resources there is competition. When you have abundant resources there's a lot more room to work together."
And how are the resources holding up?
"It has been tough. In a grant world paradigm, you run out. The Lila Wallace grant ends December of this year and a significant portion of the Arts Council's budget is going to go away. We've been looking at ways to fill that need.
"We're moving forward as best we can. The North Coast Cultural Trust will continue to do the project grants to artists -- those are assured forever because of the endowment. And the community art grants are assured for at least the next two years.
"That's where our endowment campaign comes in. The Arts Council is beginning another major fund-raising effort to get our endowment in place so we can help others with the proceeds. I think it makes sense to have an interest-bearing account and live off the interest instead of constantly needing to do fundraisers."
Editor's note: Staff writer Bob Doran has an insider's perspective in preparing this week's cover story -- and also a unique conflict of interest. He was the recipient of a $1,840 grant that originated from the pool of money that began with the Lila Wallace funds. His grant was used to purchase a digital camera to create a library of images of local artists and musicians. Doran, who graduated from Humboldt State University in the early 1980s in theater arts with an empahsis on film, was a volunteer for KEET-TV's Living Biographies program and has recorded the stories of a number of elders in the community. He will be at Harvest of the Arts this weekend as a volunteer recording portraits of those participating. (See Harvest of the Arts Schedule )
1999 Awards to Performing
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