Should Northern Nevadans be concerned about the exodus of creative people?
Reno breeds creative people. For whatever reason—the high desert air, the mountain streams, the blending of California bluebloods and redblooded rednecks—creative people grow up here. It may have something to do with the size of the city, which, like the cliché implies, is somewhere between biggest and little. At least in the last three decades, Reno has felt perpetually on the verge of a cultural breakthrough.
Arts events like Burning Man, Artown and Nada Dada attract national attention. Every couple of years, a great local rock band comes along. There are local restaurants that seem genuinely innovative. There are grassroots organizations that seem poised to revitalize the city. There are new, high-tech, eco-friendly businesses that are always just about to save the economy.
The city feels big enough that something might happen here—could happen at any moment—but it’s small enough that, no matter who you are, you feel like you might be part of the breakthrough. It could be your band that records a hit song, your web series that goes viral, or your art happening that becomes the next Burning Man. You just need to work at it.
This perpetual sense of possibility is inspirational for creative types—artists, musicians and writers, but also chefs, architects and business people. You can make it happen with just a little effort. Start swimming and, before long, you’re a big fish.
But then, inevitably, the pond starts to feel small. And those creative people who grow up here eventually decide it’s time to move on to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Seattle.
Bad for money
“Reno actually has some of the most creative people of anywhere I’ve traveled to, the most original and independent-thinking people,” says Kyle Kozar, an artist, musician, and cofounder of the Reno Bike Project, a nonprofit bicycle shop and advocacy group. “I think a big part of that is kind of geographical. We’re sort of isolated. … It’s all independent creativity.”
Kozar is just the sort of creative and active person a Reno renaissance would need—he’s moving to New York City in mid-January to attend a graduate program at the Pratt Institute.
“I don’t know that we’re more isolated physically,” says Mark Curtis, a creative consultant and cofounder of Artown. “But we might be, in times like these, sort of emotionally isolated—that we think it’s more difficult here. It is tough here because this is an extremely hard hit economic area. That’s a big black cloud. … It’s a really tough time to do anything creative here because no one’s got much money to help devote to things.”
“There’s no established scene [in Reno], which is bad for money, but good for creativity,” says Ryan Stark, a writer, musician and artist who grew up in Reno but now lives in the Bay Area and works at legendary Berkeley record store Amoeba Records. He says the average part-time artist is able to make more money in the Bay Area than in Reno. “I know painters who just work in coffee shops or whatever, that are selling paintings for three grand that in Reno would be $25.”
In addition to the limited financial opportunities, Reno also lacks many national and international networking opportunities.
“Take someone like [visual artist and University of Nevada, Reno professor] Mike Sarich,” says Kozar. “Here, he’s got his niche. He’s an amazing artist. He’s got his niche and he kills it. But if he went out to New York and had the proper management or people helping him promote his stuff, he would be the king shit artist.”
Kozar says Reno is not a realistic platform for pursuing an international art career.
“There’s not the industry, there’s not the money, there’s not the resources to make that happen,” says Kozar.
And some of the few local artists who make their living doing art, like painter Ahren Hertel, are represented by California-based galleries.
Good for art
The lack of infrastructure is an impediment for local artists, but it’s also creatively liberating.
“It’s a small town, and creative people have an opportunity to be isolated in this community and grow ideas and work with each other on ideas, and that’s a huge advantage,” says Kozar. “If you’re an artist or anything—a creative person who wants to work on any project, a cultural or social project, anything, all you need to do is go around and talk to the right people in this small community, and you can make it happen. That’s a pretty amazing ability to be able to make a phone call and make something cool happen, and Reno works like that. There are a lot of forward-thinking and creative people here, so a lot of stuff is going on all the time.”
The idea is that, if no one’s watching, you can do whatever you want.
“Music is a perfect example of that,” says Kozar. “I’ve gone to other cities and seen live music by local bands and shows in bars and stuff, and it’s never anything nearly as awesome as you can go any night of the week and see a local band playing in some small basement or whatever, and it’s the most awesome music ever, and it’s music that’s never going to be known to anybody but people in Reno, which is the sad part.”
The smaller scene also facilitates more communication among creatives who might not ever meet one another in a larger market.
“In Reno, we don’t have the luxury of different genres being able to separate, because the genres aren’t big enough to separate,” says Stark. “So the hip-hoppers over at Spoken Views will go to a punk show, which would never happen in any large city. That would never happen here [in the Bay Area]. It makes for something different, so people can be free to do something in their own right without any expectation.”
Larger cities might offer more opportunity, but they also suffer from more stratification.
“There’s an established doom metal scene here, which is crazy to me,” says Stark, describing one of the Bay Area’s many isolated cultural pockets. “They have their own bands, their own scene people, the places where they play that just do doom metal, and they’re left to do their own thing, but it becomes so insular that they don’t really get out there very much.”
Reno’s smaller size makes communication easier—but also more essential. Everybody has to work together. In order for the local music scene to thrive, the metal fans have to support the hip-hop shows, and vice versa.
“It’s not necessarily about income, or money, or jobs, it’s about using what creative facilities you have and getting together over coffee in downtown, and getting away on weekends, and making sure you get exposed to ideas, and solutions, and challenges,” says Curtis. “Creative people and the arts people have always had to think and use their creativity because they don’t have the resources. You always wish that the politicians and the business leaders could tap into that sense of creativity, and this area could blossom more.”
Make like a tree
So how does Reno get creative people to stay here?
“I don’t think it’s important that it does,” says Stark. “I’ve heard that sentiment before, and honestly I find it kind of creepy. It’s a town, not a business. It’s important for a lot people to really get a scope of what a treasure that place is to be away from it for a couple of years. … I’m going to be back.”
“I don’t know that you need to go, or for how long, but you need to be exposed to what’s out there,” says Curtis. “Even if you go for the weekend, or go for a vacation. … When you go, you can come back home and work, and help nurture other people and be nurtured by other people, but you got to be exposed to the stuff that’s going on, whether it’s through publications, or going and being there.”
Curtis also stresses how important it is for creative people to take advantage of the culture that is available and accessible—the Nevada Museum of Art and the Stremmel Gallery, trips to San Francisco and Burning Man. “If you’re a serious creative person, you can’t be lazy. You’ve got to be serious about learning.”
“People leave because they want to go and experience other stuff, because it’s small, and it’s good to get out and spread your wings a little bit and see what else there is so you know that home is home,” says Kozar. “I’m moving to New York, and I’m really excited about it. … I’ve lived in Reno my whole life, so to go live somewhere else and experience a different group of people and see how they act and how they do things, and learn from them—but it doesn’t mean I’m done with Reno.”
Kozar mentions artists like globetrotting former Renoites Erik Burke, Yale Wolf and Caedron Burchfield who come back to Reno for events and exhibitions a few times a year.
“These are people that, yeah, they live in New York or Seattle or wherever, but they still come back to Reno several times a year and put on art shows and contribute to the art scene even from afar. In many ways, they contribute more so because they now have this other perspective. A lot of them that leave come back, and most of them that leave are always grounded in Reno roots. So, while they may leave, they never really leave the community.”