Ripe For Change
Enhancing Salinas’ art scene is viewed as key component to future economic development.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
In the fertile soil of Salinas Valley, a new crop is coming into season. Pushing up through the crust of years, Salinas, the city at the center of “the salad bowl of the world,” is preparing to harvest a cornucopia that will nourish its people for generations.
As if obeying some prescient almanac that bade all workers plant at the same phase of the moon, in the past few months all the right laborers with all the right tools have been drawn to the field from many compass points. After preparing the ground for countless years, they are ready to harvest together, as the city grows a future.
“This is a community that’s still based on the ideals of the West, a working community that has always seen itself in dynamic terms, that really believes that tomorrow can and will be better,” says Mayor Dennis Donohue. His campaign message, “Imagine a great city: Peace, Prosperity and Image,” so caught the imagination of voters that he was elected by a landslide in November 2006.
Integral to Donohue’s vision, he says, is “the arts: It’s the wild card in this whole picture.” He believes arts will be key to economic development through cultural tourism, can create peace through cultural understanding, and can develop a new image of the city through a lively, art-filled downtown.
If the arts are the key, then it’s possible to hear the giant tumblers already moving into place.
This month a dynamic new executive director took over the helm of the National Steinbeck Center, Salinas’ major cultural investment, which has been underused for years. In September, the city hired a new economic development director, a believer in the arts as a mobilizing force for development. Both newcomers have strong histories of establishing collaborations, sharing resources and building partnerships.
The new leader/laborers are discovering an existing arts community that has survived on those principles for decades: gypsy organizations that have built extraordinary programs without facilities and with little money. Among those are Artistas Unidos, which created the First Fridays Artwalk in Oldtown, and the Alisal Center for the Fine Arts, a cultural center without walls that has touched many lives. Institutions like Hartnell College have served as cultural hubs in Salinas since long before the Steinbeck was built. Deteriorated attractions like the Fox Theater in Oldtown are being re-imagined by new ownership and, with other revitalized venues, are providing Salinas musicians with places to perform and Salinas audiences a new promise of nightlife (see story, pg. 32). The atmosphere is ripe for change.
A tool for transformation
Donohue insists he is a “neighbor, not a politician” who decided to seek office after bringing a boys choir from Canada to sing at Sherwood Hall.
“The power of these kids, 6th grade through high school – 1,000 people leaped to their feet,” Donohue says. “It was a spirit that moves people, moves a community, and right there I thought, ‘Boy, I could serve the community as mayor and be a spokesperson for the kind of city we can be,’ ’’
His “imagine a great city” message resonated deeply after Salinas’ years of budget crises and cuts in public services. The city has long suffered from youth gang violence and crime that cast a pall over the community and a blight on its image.
“This community has real challenges,” he says. “Peace, prosperity, image… you can’t separate them, all are needed.The arts contribute to peace and give people outside of Salinas a better idea of who we are. Arts help with youth and revitalization, with beautification and image. They contribute as much to social transformation as to economic development.”
In his first year, Donohue has established a community safety alliance to develop and guide crime prevention and intervention efforts, hired more officers to enforce codes involving blight and beautification, hired a new community safety director, created an economic development director position and recruited candidates for it, and co-sponsored an economic summit, bringing community leaders and experts together to discuss regional workforce issues and downtown revitalization issues. He convened a town hall meeting that offered residents a chance to get involved in different areas, including the arts, and tasked a group to develop an arts council to set goals.
“There is a lot of artistic energy in our community. Herb Caen wrote many years ago that ‘The only culture in Salinas is agriculture,’ but in fact what’s here is a very dynamic mix, very multicultural: a large and multigenerational Mexican-American community, but also deeply rooted Chinese, Japanese and Filipino communities,” he says.
Donohue noted that although there is much passion, enthusiasm and commitment to the arts in Salinas, the community’s talent and culture must be nurtured.
“We have a terrific music scene. It has a distinctive flavor to it, great bands coming out of East Salinas – but the musicians need venues to play, and recording studios,” he says. “There has been no centralized support system that packages this talent and creates momentum for it. An arts council or commission can do that and articulate a broad cultural vision for the community.”
He asked Eric Bossler of Hartnell College and Trish Sullivan of Artistas Unidos to spearhead the effort to develop such a group and begin taking inventory of arts assets and setting up an arts summit early next year.
A sense of place
“We talk about creating a sense of place,” Donohue says. “Salinas has a rich history. Salinas is to fresh what autos are to Detroit: We have a fine Oldtown, great events like the rodeo and air show, but we need more. And we’re talking about what that will look like, and what do we do to get there.”
Jeffrey Weir is Salinas’ new economic development director. In his second month on the job, he already is immersed in the revitalization of Salinas’ Chinatown just north of the Steinbeck Center. The city plans to accentuate the historical aspects of this neighborhood, as well as a smaller Japantown next to it.
“The heritage of Salinas is so diverse. So many immigrants,” he says. “I was drawn here by the sense of a city on the cusp, and by the real commitment to the arts – honest collaborations between the city, the chamber, businesses and nonprofits – and the sense that the people have really taken control of their destiny. That’s why I’m here. ”
Many worlds to explore
A nationwide search brought a new executive director to the National Steinbeck Center from Sioux Falls, S.D., where he was founding director of the Washington Pavilion of Arts and Sciences. In many ways, Steve Hoffman has come home. The child of a military family, his father was stationed at Fort Ord while Hoffman was in his pre-teen years. Now he’s living temporarily in the family home of that era. His parents kept the Pebble Beach house although they moved many times and eventually settled in Chicago.
That feeling of coming home, and the impression of Salinas as a community ready for change, were powerful attractions.
“What a great community of people passionate about what they do,” Hoffman says. “The National Steinbeck Center is built around the personal passion of Steinbeck, his writings and the literary arts; we have a great opportunity to generate programs that complement the vision of such an artist, a vision that encompasses not only literary but visual arts, politics, agriculture, sports, dogs… So many worlds to explore and be involved with.”
Hoffman was raised in France, Germany, Texas, Virginia, Washington state, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey. His undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois was in speech communications. In his youth, he booked rock concerts and worked at an international fine art publishing company. He also ran a small nonprofit theater company in Chicago before attending graduate school in arts management at the University of Wisconsin. He worked at Cal Tech and taught at the University of Michigan before becoming program director of an arts council in Summerville, S.C.
He ran the Huntington Arts Council Summer Arts Festival in New York, pairing jazz with poetry, and visual arts with a woodwind quintet. Then he was recruited to Sioux Falls to build a new center of arts and science with an Omnimax cinema. He was its first staff member, hired two years before it opened. He left a flourishing center that employed more than 250 people with a little over a $5 million budget. (The National Steinbeck Center currently has a $2.3 million budget and a staff of 19.)
“Culture begets culture,” Hoffman says. “[Sioux Falls] was very much like Salinas; the downtown wasn’t flourishing. But soon after the Pavilion was built, a sushi bar opened a block away. Then we initiated a sculpture walk. Kids hanging on the block were replaced by people sitting outside at restaurants that now opened onto the sidewalks. Downtown began to turn around.”
Hoffman credits the Sioux Falls mayor with understanding the role of art and culture in economic development. Hoffman and the Pavilion became part of the tour for prospective businesses, many of whom said the thriving cultural scene was why they chose to move their businesses and employees there – it had many of the same amenities as a bigger city without the drawbacks.
The city calculated that box office revenues alone returned $12.3 million to the community each year, Hoffman says.
Almost a month after his arrival, Hoffman is working with his staff, board and volunteers, “tweaking the programs” and getting to know the community. He already sees rich opportunities for collaborations.
“We have this facility and many resources. Another nonprofit might have a mission that enables us to do mutually beneficial programs and share constituencies,” he says.
The National Steinbeck Center is already a destination for tourism and events, Hoffman says. As its programs expand, more people will be attracted to Oldtown and Salinas to visit shops, restaurants and art galleries and help the city itself become a destination.
People all over the world are interested in John Steinbeck, he says, and as the center does more national programs, it will be easier to obtain national grants and “bring new dollars into the community.”
For instance, when the Washington Pavilion brought in an avant-garde Taiwanese art exhibition that was the kickoff off a national tour, the exhibit garnered publicity in airline magazines and brought international visitors. “It boosted everything,” he says.
Just as Hoffman reached out to the Native American communities surrounding Sioux Falls to make sure they were an integral part of the program, he intends to ensure that the Mexican-American community of Salinas finds a home at the Steinbeck.
“Arts are a way that people can express themselves in which language isn’t a barrier,” he says. “Outreach isn’t enough. We have to invite and to welcome.”
Shortly after his arrival, the Steinbeck invited Jose Ortiz of the Alisal Center for the Fine Arts to install a Día de Los Muertos altar there, and for the first time opened the doors for free during the city’s First Friday ArtWalk, serving pan dulce and hot chocolate.
A traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian, Becoming American, about the experiences of immigrant teens from many countries, opened for a free community day with a presentation by local immigrant teens and a performance by teenagers involved in the Monterey County Migrant Education program.
These early intersections of community issues and culture bode well for Steinbeck’s future role in Salinas.
“We’re asking how the community can use the National Steinbeck Center as a primary resource to enhance the quality of life and use all of Salinas’ cultural attractions to enable all members of the community to express themselves in a positive way,” Hoffman says. “Not ‘How do you solve the gang problem?’ but more ‘How do you get people to respect each other?’ ”
Everyone knows Alisal
Every conversation about the arts in Salinas includes reference to the programs of The Alisal Center for the Fine Arts, yet this cultural center has been homeless since 1986. Founded by a loose-knit group of community members to fill a void for the youth of East Salinas, the nonprofit has moved from room to room of recreation centers, middle school cafeterias and high school theaters. During the past 21 years, it has served thousands of young people and adults from throughout the Salinas region.
Alisal’s programs currently include Hijos del Sol, a visual arts program; Tonatiuh: Danantes del Quinto Sol, a touring adult ballet folklorico company; Alma y Corazon, a prize-winning elementary school folklorico company; Rondalla Armonia, a guitar class and program for all ages; and Rondalla Alisal, a performing company of guitarists of all ages. In addition, Alisal offers vocal, dance and drama classes.All are free. Most operate out of different facilities. Now there’s hope for a real home.
“We have the keys to the Bread Box,” says George Niesen, a founding board member. The organization had been sharing space in the Firehouse, a Parks and Recreation facility on Alisal Street, and hoped to take it over in 2004. But the city chose another organization to run the building. Currently, Alisal shares space with recreation programs at the Bread Box, a former boxing gym, on Sanborn Road. A visit to the facility illuminates the challenges the programs face without offices or storage areas. Tables with cardboard boxes full of art supplies are separated from a noisy basketball court and pool tables only by waist-high room dividers.
“Right now, Hijos del Sol serves about 35 students on an ongoing basis and many more drop in. We have dance classes and other events there but we haven’t been recruiting for new students because of the lack of facilities,” says Jose Ortiz, director of the visual arts programs. “Salinas is rich in parks and sports facilities and athletic programs, but there’s no place for children who are into painting, drawing, music. Without a place of our own, we can’t make this program grow.”
Real careers in the arts
Students mostly come from East Salinas, he says, and the group helps them get training so they can move on to higher education.
He gives examples of students who have gotten degrees in architecture or engineering, including “a kid who was usually at the principal’s office or in other trouble. A teacher recommended him to me and now he’s halfway done with his bachelor’s degree at Cal Poly. He was struggling because he was different, and I like to believe we had a lot to do with helping him,” Ortiz says.
Without a Salinas venue for their exhibitions, Hijos del Sol has been welcomed for more than a decade to install the annual Día de Los Muertos exhibition at the Pajaro Valley Arts Council Gallery in Watsonville.
The 2007 “Día” exhibition centered around the remembrance of a former student who took his life in the beginning of this year. Young artists of Hijos exhibited works that represented their farewell to the young man while the families and friends commemorated him. One of these, Jacob Rafael Estrada, was born and raised in Salinas and began working with Hijos del Sol and Ortiz when he was 9. Now 19 and a sophomore at Hartnell College, he is focused on a career as an artist.
“When I was going to school, many of my peers had real artistic talent, but they had no direction and no guidance and they didn’t really understand that their artistic ability could lead to a real career. But graphic design, architecture, engineering and fine arts – it’s a myth there’s no money in it.”
The young artist’s mother, Annamaria Estrada, reflected on why the family supported his creative efforts.
Speaking in Spanish, her son translated: “Art is very important for every child. It’s a way to unravel their abilities and build the intellect. There just aren’t enough of these kinds of programs in Salinas.” She pointed to the rich cultural heritage of Mexico as one of the reasons East Salinas produces such talent, and credited Alisal Center and Ortiz for developing this in her son.
Niesen credits the city of Salinas for providing support during difficult budgetary times. “They want us at The Bread Box; they want us to succeed in creating a Salinas Art Center,” he says. He has submitted grant proposals to local foundations that “will give us a good start,” and appreciates the ongoing support from the Arts Council and the Community Foundation for Monterey County.
Ortiz visualizes the facility as a workshop, gallery space and café where kids can hang out, talk and do homework, and where their visual, performing and literary arts programs can thrive and expand. Niesen also hopes to build a 200-seat theater there.
With a budget that topped $100,000 for the first time in 2007, the Alisal programs served more than 150 youths in ongoing programs and more than 24,000 participants in their community performances and workshops.
In a neighborhood that has long been burdened with a reputation for crime and gang violence, the organization has operated without incident, even though one of its neighbors in The Bread Box is a gang-diversion program.
Jacob Estrada believes things are changing. “Salinas is getting there,” he says. “It used to be that if you wanted to see art or hear music you had to go to Monterey. We’re trying to change that.”
Hartnell a steady influence
Before the National Steinbeck Center opened its doors in 1998, the major cultural institution in the Salinas Valley since the 1930s was Hartnell College, a well-respected community college named after El Colegio de Hartnell, an adobe in early Salinas that was the first institution of higher education west of the Mississippi. The college, thanks to a talented and dedicated staff and a community that embraced it, has developed a powerful arts program.
Theater arts flourish with a professional-level season of plays presented at The Western Stage, using students as well as community and professional actors.
In the visual arts, Hartnell Gallery, established 31 years ago, still is curated by ceramics instructor Gary Smith and co-curated by photography instructor Eric Bosler. The two have brought world-class artists and exhibitions to this unlikely hotbed for contemporary art.
“The gallery has shown work over the past three decades that you would normally have to go to major cities to see,” says Bosler, who began his interview by attributing all credit to Smith. “For instance, Gary arranged an exhibition of the work of Claes Oldenburg and his collaborator, Coosje van Bruggen, when they came to Salinas in 1982 to install a sculpture commissioned by the city of Salinas for the Salinas Fairgrounds. It was a momentous exhibition.”
Hartnell Gallery has shown significant contemporary artists like Alex Katz, Carl Andre and Joseph Beuys, as well as works relating specifically to Monterey County, including a major Edward Weston exhibit.
“Many of us have been working for years to establish not just a venue for local people but to bring the world to Salinas, to elevate and expand our cultural presence and identity,” Bosler says. “Many cities have used the arts to revitalize their downtowns. We also hope to create an atmosphere where people would find a kind of unity.”
Bosler is among those asked by Donohue to assemble an arts council.
Artistas Unidos’ vision
Patricia “Trish” Sullivan is executive director of Artistas Unidos, working with Bosler and others to help develop Salinas’ arts vision.
“People in Salinas understand that our future depends on creativity and giving our young people positive alternatives, positive pursuits,” Sullivan says. “Artistas Unidos has been working on that goal since its founding in 2002. It was a loose-knit group of artists. We got tired of hearing people, including ourselves, complain that there’s nothing to do in Salinas. Our city is good at the annual big events, but there’s no place for a band to play downtown. And when we began, there was no place for an artist to exhibit.”
The group asked owners of coffee shops and boutiques if they would be interested in hanging works by local artists and staging opening receptions. It was hard to organize all the openings, so the group created the First Friday ArtWalk.
The ArtWalk has gained in momentum to become not only a venue for local visual and performing artists, but a marketing event for Oldtown.
Joe Truskot, executive director of Monterey Symphony, lives in Salinas.
“Salinas is a hard nut to crack,” he says. “It’s much more complicated as a city than the Monterey Peninsula, where the audience is so homogeneous it’s astonishing. Here there’s a wider mix. I grew up in a working-class community like this and I love it. It’s so youthful, so family-oriented, so ‘Let’s get this done.’ ”
The symphony has performed concerts in Salinas’ Sherwood Hall for decades. When Carmel’s Sunset Center was completed, two of three performances of each concert moved to the Sunset. Many Salinas subscribers followed them to the new venue, where a mid-afternoon weekend performance is attractive to the predominantly older concertgoers.
The Sunset Center seats 718, but if the symphony has 700 people in the 1585-seat Sherwood Hall, it feels empty, Truskot says.
The symphony began to sell tickets to the daytime “final rehearsal” at Sherwood at $12-$15 ticket compared with $18-$38 for the evening. This has attracted many who prefer the daytime performances.
Truskot recently launched a series of free daytime concerts in non-traditional locations, like a lunchtime concert in the rotunda of City Hall that attracted about 100. The symphony has deliberately programmed the “big” works by composers like Beethoven and Rachmaninoff to attract younger fans because that music is “powerful, but familiar,” Truskot says. “The largest increase in downloadable music for 20-year-old [people] is classical music. We are working to reach them.”
Donohue is enthusiastic about Truskot’s proposal that Salinas establish a conservatory for young musicians who want to pursue music careers. It’s one of the ideas on the table for the new Salinas.
A community that works
Is there an economic development plan that articulates these ideas? Or a budget set-aside to accomplish them? Not yet. But the vision is widely shared, the field made so ready and the seeds in the ground.
“In this community, if you’re putting on a new roof, your brother-in-law and second cousin and neighbors are up there with you,” Truskot says. “This is a town that isn’t afraid of work, as long as we know what we want.”