A tasty mix
Artown must balance the spiciness of big-name acts with a base of local talent to create an unforgettable flavor
Artown is like a box of chocolates: We’re not really sure, until around June of each year, what we’re going to get. We know it’ll be sweet, we can assume there will be things some of us won’t like, and we can rely on the fact that Artown is best shared with friends.
“We’re a Whitman Sampler of the arts,” Artown board chairman Tom Outland says.
From her ground-floor office in the building directly across the street from the Nevada Museum of Art, Artown Executive Director Beth Macmillan makes the Artown decisions that balance the more than 250 arts events during the month of July. Not just scheduling this vendor to that venue, she must find the prefect recipe to combine the needs of local artists with the commercially successful, high-profile acts like the Joffrey Ballet that guarantee Artown’s future.
“We really try to mix it up and not separate [national-stature acts] out as much as saying, ‘Come to this one, it’s a national event’ … because we feel our artists are on a par with what we bring in,” Macmillan says.
Clearly, Artown’s mission isn’t to focus entirely on local arts. For Macmillan, the national acts are a crucial part of the Artown picture, as they are for Artown co-founder and Creative Director Mark Curtis.
“From the very beginning, except the very first festival when we couldn’t attract bigger acts because nobody had heard of us, the idea has been to combine the best in the world with the best that Northern Nevada has to offer,” Curtis says.
For Curtis and Macmillan, the fact that local events can fit seamlessly alongside national ones demonstrates that some Renoites are worthy of standing next to prestigious talent from out of state.
But showcasing and elevating the Reno arts aren’t necessarily Artown’s primary goals.
“The most important part of Artown to me is that we strengthen our arts industry that we have locally and that we educate and entertain our community … so that they become more art savvy,” Macmillan says.
So does Artown educate? Does it entertain? Does it highlight local talent without allowing that talent to be eclipsed by celebrity flair?
The answers depend on whom you ask.
“I’m not aware of how Artown educates our community,” says Scott Beers, founder and director of Brüka Theatre. “I guess they have the Discover the Arts series, but that’s a pretty small-scale project: You bring a certain discipline up and have some kids engage in an activity for an hour or so at the park. We toured Young Beethoven through 20 schools in Reno, Truckee, Tahoe and Yerington. I think that’s education.”
Beers has a rather narrow definition of “education.” Some would say simply introducing audiences to the breadth and variety of the artistic experience could be considered education.
Elizabeth Weigel of Area-51 Dance would like to see more education directed toward regional artists.
“It would be nice if some of [Artown’s] money, as opposed to bringing in all great new entertainers, if some of that money would be directed toward community collaborations with professionals,” Weigel says.
This year is perhaps the closest Artown has come to supporting such an educational partnership. The Actors’ Gang from Los Angeles, which will be presenting The Guys through an affiliation with Truckee Meadows Community College, will participate in an actors’ workshop with local theater companies.
“We’re going to learn social theater, and we’re excited about that,” Beers says. “We thought that was a real neat way to bring us in. We’d like to see more of that kind of stuff from Artown.”
As far as educating the not-so-art-savvy members of the Reno community, some gallery owners and coordinators say they’ve met patrons who learned about the existence of their businesses because of Artown.
Amy Oppio, director of communications at Nevada Museum of Art, says she has encountered museum visitors who learned about the museum through the Artown festival, despite NMA’s own marketing efforts and even despite the museum’s grand reopening in May of last year.
“I think it is education as far as understanding what the cultural arts community has to offer back to the people who live here,” Oppio says. “As far as the entertainment issue, I think it is tremendous that you can see [a group like] the Ahn Trio at Bartley Ranch for free in a very intimate venue. … That would be somebody that we couldn’t see just any old time during the year, and it also made us pay more attention to what was going on as far as performing arts.”
With an annual attendance of approximately 145,000 during each of the last three years and about 80 percent of audiences saying that they’ve participated in Artowns past, it seems clear that the majority of the public feels entertained.
For Macmillan, strengthening the arts organizations in town means marketing their events—which ideally leads to increased awareness of what Reno has to offer art-wise year-round—and helping to establish relationships between businesses, individuals and sponsors that may not have existed before. Many artistic groups in town feel these goals, for the most part, have been met.
The biggest issue for some local arts groups is the difficulty making connections with sponsors that Artown hasn’t already tapped into. When individual and commercial entities donate to Artown, none of that money goes directly to funding local organizations’ performances.
“Most people think that Artown pays for all 31 days of every event, and a lot of the time we organizations are denied funding because people say, ‘We donated to Artown. Oh, you’ll get your money from Artown,’ but that’s not the case,” Weigel says. “Each organization has to fundraise, grant write and ask for funding to support their event.”
Artown is able to pay for security at events for the first time this year, which will mean a maximum contribution of about $400 to a group like Area-51, whose total performance costs are about $10,000. That seems to be a small step in the right direction.
In spite of what local arts organizations see as room for improvement, most groups believe Artown has benefited them and the Reno community. It’s generally agreed that the Artown staff is receptive to the art community’s concerns, and there’s no question that Macmillan makes herself easy to reach.
“I think Artown has a big job because they’re encompassing all the arts, performing and visual. So they really have their hands full,” says Stephanie Tsanas of Alexandratos Gallery, which opened on April 4. “Beth [Macmillan] has been very open to discussions about what could be improved next year.”