Artown is our town
Has the great Reno art event focused enough on great Reno art? Depends on whom you ask
“I don’t ever get any work done in July because I’m out looking at everybody else’s stuff,” says local bronze sculptor, ceramist and painter Craig Smyres.
Smyres is a resident of the Riverside Artists Lofts. Although he’s at the geographical center of the arts community year-round, he says that Artown and the Starving Artists Sale in the fall are the only times during the year that he and many other local artists sell their works. “It’s a mob. Better once a year than not at all. I think a lot of locals save their money for July.”
Reno is Artown for the eighth year now, and Smyres’ take on the event seems to be the consensus, even among some of the skeptics: 31 days of art per year is more than most cities have.
Artown establishes a thriving mecca for the arts during July. Although there’s a lot of arty stuff going on in Reno during the other 11 months, artists, galleries, businesses and nonprofits revel in the exposure that Artown brings them once a year. Many of the folks who reap the dime and dollar fruits of the fertile Artown tree agree that exposure from July often carries over into September or October and can even generate rewards years into the future.
The Food Bank of Northern Nevada, for instance, has been enjoying these rewards for five years, since it joined up with Artown through the Food for the Soul concert series. Doris Phelps, assistant director at FBNN, uses the culturally eclectic music series as a platform to bring attention to world hunger and to bring in food donations.
Most Artown participants readily admit that they use their partnership with Artown to further their own agendas—to help bring attention to how they are feeding Reno’s ever-burgeoning arts and culture flame.
“Promoting the concerts does create for us new friends, new donors, new sponsors,” Phelps says. “People have some information that they can take away with them that will help acquaint them with the Food Bank and what we do. … The goal of the music series is to enhance our presence in the community. … Artown does consider us one of their anchor events. We really appreciate that status.”
Most local groups and artists agree with Phelps’ sentiments. In fact, almost anyone who is even remotely involved in the festival or who has been attending for the past few years will proudly admit, “I love Artown.”
But, Artown may have room for improvement, and skeptics enjoy getting a few words in edgewise before the din of the festival quiets them.
All eyes on Artown
Artown has been criticized in the past as not placing enough emphasis on local artists. Some artists say Artown, in its desire to draw large crowds and garner recognition outside the Reno area, takes focus away from Reno’s native musicians, visual artists, performance artists, dancers and writers.
“I think Artown … is culturally rich as far as bringing top-notch entertainment from out of state and out of country,” says Sandra Adams, vice-president of the River Walk Merchant Association and owner of Bantu Spirit, “but I think there’s been no real focus on local arts and entertainment. They’re improving upon that, I think, as the years go by and they talk to different community members.”
“Artown is kind of weird,” says Chad Sorg, co-owner of Bleulion Gallery (formerly Blue Lyon) and mixed-media artist. Sorg has a shaved head and a goatee. His pleasant friendliness and enthusiasm for any sort of artistic expression are intrinsic to his personality.
“The local thing was an issue,” he says. “I don’t think [the national acts] hurt anybody; they were good as far as entertainment … but I do think it’s been changing. As far as focus, I’d like to see more local, but I can’t point fingers. I mean, I’m not going out there and changing anything.”
Sorg also points out, as do many other artists and arts merchants, that focus on the arts doesn’t need to be a one-time-a-year thing.
“Just pay attention,” he says. “We’re always here.”
Artist and former UNR student who goes by the moniker Pinky is more critical than some. Pinky is about 5-feet-3-inches and wears her freshly-died red hair in a pigtail with Bettie Page bangs.
Pinky says too little attention is given to university and community college students or up-and-coming teen artists. These young people would stay in Reno rather than relocate to more artistically and culturally rich cities if the town recognized what they were doing at least once a year.
“UNR’s Sheppard Gallery participates in Artown, but nobody really tries to include the students,” Pinky says. “There’s a whole crop of unused, untouched talent, and it goes pretty much ignored all the time, and the month that Reno pretends to care about art, they’re still ignored. Nobody pays attention to the up-and-comers, and so they leave.”
Pinky also says Reno is “a small pond with a lot of big fish and a lot more little fish.” Many of this year’s Artown artists will be people of Artown’s past, suggesting a lack of variety among the visual arts that are presented, and that art is Reno is always the same: mainstream and tame.
“For something that’s focusing on art, [Artown] offers very run-of-the-mill and conservative exhibits,” Pinky says. “Instead of choosing artists who are doing really interesting, difficult, conceptual work, they pass them up for some Sunday painter. And Reno, which is supposed to be growing as an artistic town, is still really far out of step from the rest of the art world.
“[The Artown staff] doesn’t want to rock the boat, so they pass up something that could be really interesting, educational and culturally important, in order not to offend their sponsors. If there was more conceptual, cutting-edge art, Artown would probably attract more teens, too, since that age group is always looking for things that are outside-the-box.”
In defense of art
Sorg says that the Artown staff is pretty receptive to people who want to get involved. Local artists looking for an Artown partnership and the extra arts coverage that it provides can probably get it with relatively little stress. But you have to put yourself out there—you have to attend the Artown meetings that started in February and submit an application.
Beth Macmillan, the festival manager for Artown, says it’s hard to keep track of all the new arts groups and galleries that come into being during the course of a year, and some people end up being excluded.
“What we did last year, around October, is put out a call to all artists who we had on our presenter lists … and told them how to become involved,” she says. “We rely on the arts community to inform us who the new artists’ groups are and to bring those people to the next meeting. We put [Artown] out there and talk about how we can help their groups. … Depending on who submits their application and demonstrates a real interest, we include them. It also depends on what somebody’s agenda is and if it fits in.”
Macmillan and John Shelton, Artown’s interim executive director, say that, regardless of what people think, there has always been a lot of focus on local arts groups and artists, although the spotlight may not have illuminated these local events as brightly as it should have.
“I think what happens when people criticize you is that you take a good look at what you’re doing and look at how you can improve upon that,” Macmillan says. Realizing that locals wanted more coverage for locals, the Artown team began directing more of its marketing efforts toward Renoites.
“I personally haven’t had a role in that [change],” says Shelton, who succeeded Karen Craig, who resigned as director earlier this year. There is a national search underway for a new, permanent executive director. “I’ve only been on the job for two months, but both the board and staff took those sorts of criticisms really seriously. The issue [of insufficient local coverage] was a perception rather than a reality. The majority are local events, locally produced. … We realized we needed to have a stronger sense of communication.”
Uptown, downtown, Artown
Communication with Artown was lost somewhere along the way for Peter Zimmerman, owner of Zimmerman Gallery, which opened post-Artown last year. Zimmerman is tall, brunette and unassuming. He looks the sort to be entirely at home reading arts magazines and sitting at a desk among the paintings and sculptures of his gallery.
Zimmerman Gallery, like a few other galleries and businesses, was not included in Artown’s line-up because of a failure to connect. Zimmerman gave his e-mail address to the Artown staff, but when it changed, he never passed along his new address. By the time he heard Artown was setting its 2003 wheels in motion, it was already too late to submit.
“I think that’s where we got messed up,” he says. “I blew it with the whole e-mail thing, and that’s probably all it took. I’m sure they’re all an e-mail-driven bunch.”
no creditEven though the gallery at 141 Vesta St., between Virginia Street and Wells Avenue, isn’t part of Artown’s scheme this year, its exhibit will still be worth a look. In July, exhibits feature the watercolor art of Nancy Harmon in The Shape of Color. A reception runs from 5 to 8 p.m. July 10.
Lovers of Bleulion might wonder about its exclusion from Artown. Chad Sorg says that Bleulion is not sponsored by Artown because he didn’t put the effort into attending the meetings or submitting an application.
Even though the co-owned gallery is only a few blocks from downtown—behind Louis’ Basque Corner on Fourth Street—where galleries see increased revenue during July, Sorg says Artown won’t likely have an effect on its foot traffic or sales. Although, if word gets out about the quirky and conceptual shows going on at the gallery, Bleulion might get a few more shoes scuffing the gallery floor than usual.
In July, Bleulion will host the exhibit Cheese: The Thrift Show, from 7 to 11 p.m. on July 11. Its press release boasts the questions: “Ever see a horrible painting in a thrift store that you couldn’t forget? How ’bout a gallery full of them.” On July 18 and 19, from 7 to 11 p.m., the gallery will feature The T-Shirt Show, where audiences can view T-shirts (with histories) displayed as works of art. And, to round out the month, it will host The Floor Show from 7 to 11 p.m. on July 25. To show off its new hardwood floor, the gallery will display sculptures, prints and paintings on the floor.
Some organizations with art-related events happening in July expressed an interest in being part of Artown but were turned down, the Susan Tedeschi show being one such event. Tedeschi, blues singer and guitarist, will be at Bartley Ranch at 8 p.m. July 1. Tedeschi’s performance was not sponsored by Artown because the Artown staff did not want two big events competing for attention on opening night, and they had already booked the Na Lei Hulu hula dancing troupe from the Bay Area to perform at 8 p.m. on July 1.
Jeff Cotton, owner of 1moe.com production company, booked the Tedeschi show for the first of the month because it was one of the few days that Artown didn’t request to use the Washoe County Parks & Recreation Hawkins Amphitheater (Washoe County is Cotton’s client for booking shows). But Cotton believes that because the Tedeschi show falls on the first day of Artown and because Tedeschi was not seen as an explosive enough event to open the Artown festivities, the show was overlooked.
“They couldn’t feature Tedeschi because it was the first day [of Artown] and no other events than what was already going on could happen on opening day. Because it was on opening day, it got excluded.”
Artown, however, did pick up Cotton’s other July show, Branford Marsalis & Quartet, which takes place at 8 p.m. on July 26.
“Artown got wind of Marsalis and asked to brand it as an Artown event,” he says.
Cotton has booked a line-up of shows that run all the way into October, including Randy Newman, The Blind Boys of Alabama and Dave Alvin & The Guilty Men.
Artown and beyond
The meat of Artown includes events with a huge draw, like a performance by Mikhail Baryshnikov, Nevada Museum of Art shows, Pops on the River, Movies under the Stars and the Broadway at Bartley Ranch series. But there are a lot of smaller, lower profile events.
The Food Bank’s Food for the Soul World Music Series brings attention to culturally diverse types of music and to the literary arts. Admission to each concert is a donation of $5 or a can or more of non-perishable food. Before each concert, members of the Unnamed Writers’ Group will read pieces by published authors that relate to the musical theme of the evening, and from 7 to 9 p.m. the Unnamed Writers will engage in “spontaneous prose” and create original works of literary art for food donations.
“The written word has a lot tougher time being accepted as an art form,” says Jennifer Baumer of the UWG. Jennifer has long red hair and a meek and gentle face and voice. Her passion for prose comes through when she begins to talk about the literary arts; she speaks faster and with more confidence.
“People are exposed to writing as an art through this event. They’re taking home literary art that didn’t exist 10 minutes before, and they’re seeing it as a work of art. It gets the Unnamed Writers’ Group’s name out, and we have people sign up because of Artown.”
The Food for the Soul series will feature the Somei Yoshino Taiko Ensemble for an evening of Japanese drumming and dance on July 2; Walfredo de los Reyes Sr. and the Reno Jazz Orchestra for Caribbean-Cuban Jazz on July 9; Sones de Mexico, featuring regional styles of Mexican song and dance, on July 16; the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet for a night of Native American flute music on July 23; and the Savoy-Ducet Cajun band for music about the Cajun lifestyle on July 23.
Another free event that may broaden your cultural horizons is Drum: the Art Epic. Drum wakes up Reno at 10 a.m. July 19 at the Riverside Artists Lofts. The lofts will be surrounded by 50 drummers, who will proceed to spread themselves throughout the downtown merchant area and on a predetermined signal will begin hitting a rhythm, maintaining it for five minutes. Back at the Artists Lofts, there will be a “Multi-venue Art Extravaganza utilizing every art form existent in the Reno area, specific to the artists of the Riverside Artist Lofts.”
For kids aged 6 to 12, a free Discover the Arts program takes place from 1 to 3 p.m. every weekday for the month of July. Kids will “discover” everything from Celtic music, juggling and ballet to African drumming, Chautauqua and mime.
Kids might also enjoy The Family Series, free Monday events at Wingfield Park that start at 7 p.m. On July 7, the Fly Dance Company combines street-dancing, skateboarding and music from B.B. King to Vivaldi. On July 14, it’s the theater variety show Alley-Oop! Variety in Motion, featuring acrobats, jugglers and J. R. Johns (pictured on the cover) and his dog pals, including Marvin, the Jack Russell terrier who won Jay Leno’s “American Fido” contest on The Tonight Show. Joanie Bartels brings hip music to kids and their parents on July 21. And on July 28, performance artist and mask-maker from the East Coast, Michael Cooper’s Masked Marvels and Wondertales takes the stage.
“It’s really what they categorize as family shows nowadays,” says Cooper of his show. “It’s as entertaining to the adults as it is to the children. It plays to all levels.”
Cooper’s costumes are minimal. Masks take center stage—about 15 featured masks per show, each a work of art that takes up to 300 hours to create. He performs part of the act on stilts.
Events like Artown and productions like Cooper’s are valuable, he says, in that they can instill in children a desire to explore and expand their talents.
“I’m really looking to inspire an audience, to remind each person that creativity is a birthright. We suffer from the idea that talent has been unevenly divided up, and that the rest of us are just witnesses to that. That’s just hooey. Talent abounds! I want to inspire people to try their hand at what I’m doing—to respond to that call in themselves. I think any really good [artist] can do that.”
No matter what your artistic preferences, many of the events Artown features are undeniably appealing. On a hot summer evening, a stop at Wingfield Park for a movie or music and a sunset stroll through River Gallery and VSA arts might just be the remedy to a chaotic day. If you pick up a cup of coffee and say “hi” to a few friends at Java Jungle or Dreamer’s before heading over to Esoteric to listen to one of the eclectic performers who grace their stage every week, it may become obvious that Reno has had a cultural life pulsing through its veins for many more years than Artown has been around.
Many locals will come to the realization that these cultural things happen all year in Reno. Yes, Artown helps promote local artists and art groups, inspires creativity among local youth and even educates and increases cultural awareness among adults who are out there and open to it. And the arts groups involved are no doubt pleased to be associated with such a high-profile event.
Still, many don’t want the attention in July to come at the exclusion of arts recognition August through June. Many artists live here. You can see a play, buy a painting or attend a dance or orchestral concert in the Biggest Little City almost 365 days a year.