Carson City as national arts haven?

Sperling’s Best Places thinks so

Erik Burke’s bike-themed mural in Carson City was a project of the Capital City Arts Initiative’s “Art in Public” (CAP) progam.

Erik Burke’s bike-themed mural in Carson City was a project of the Capital City Arts Initiative’s “Art in Public” (CAP) progam.

When Sperling’s BestPlaces chose Carson City, Nev., as its number-three choice for “America’s Best Places for Artists” earlier this month, some residents thought there must be a mistake.

“I’m wondering if they got the right Carson City,” says a half-joking John Procaccini, executive director of Brewery Arts Center, which presents about 140 theater and musical performances each year.

Jeff Nicholson also was surprised by the news. He’s a visual artist and owner of Great Basin Gallery. “We’ve been here for 20 years wishing all along it was a street with six other arts galleries,” says Nicholson. Instead, art sales there haven’t grown, and the gallery stays alive through its frame shop.

But there was no error. And yet, there was Carson City, sandwiched between Santa Fe, N.M. in the number-two slot and New York City in an astounding fourth place. San Francisco pouted, slumped-shouldered, at number nine.

What were they thinking?

“Part of the secret is per capita, and Carson City is not a large community,” explains Bert Sperling, founder of Sperling’s BestPlaces.

Based on U.S. Census Bureau data on businesses in 379 metro areas, Carson City had nearly 25 art establishments per 100,000 people. Compare that with New York City, which had about 15 arts businesses per 100,000 people, and San Francisco, which had roughly 10.

“But New York City has 11 million people,” says Sperling via telephone from Portland, Ore., which didn’t make the list. “Carson has a little over 50,000. It makes for a big difference.”

This, apparently, made up for Carson City’s pitiful Arts and Culture Index score of 5 out of 100. (Los Angeles, number one on the list, scored 100 on that index.)

Sperling’s also factored in the population of 25-34 year-olds, which make up 12 percent of Carson City. That age group forms about 15 percent of Los Angeles and New York City.

Then there was the cost of living. Carson City was at 109.8 on the COL index, compared with New York City at 156.5 or San Francisco at 200.

“Many times, what’s important for artists is an affordable place,” says Sperling. “That’s why artists in, say, New York City, will be responsible for the popularity of Greenwich Village, Williamsburg, Soho. The artist is being chased out from one part to another as they raise the property values by turning something crummy into something fun.”

So is Carson City one of the nation’s newest fixer-uppers, destined to be descended upon by artists and, subsequently, realtors alike? Many of the natives, while pleased by the attention, are skeptical.

Procaccini says he’s seen performers with BAC go on to take significant roles in Broadway touring productions. But he also says it’s discouraging to see the small number of people turning up for the amount of parts offered—and it’s always the same people coming to the casting calls.

“There’s much going on in the way of performing arts, but that doesn’t mean we’re a performing arts mecca by any stretch of the imagination,” he says.

On the visual arts end, Nicholson says it’s difficult to make it as a full-time artist in Carson City. “I think Nevada’s a great state for an artist,” he says. “But I know an awful lot of them who market elsewhere.”

Inching out of the shadows
But when given the per capita parameters, some Carson City artists say the town, come to think of it, does have a lot going on for its size.

Jeff Nicholson of Great Basin Gallery.

David Bugli, a Governor’s Arts Awards recipient this year, is conductor and artistic director for the Carson City Symphony and pianist and leader of the Mile High Jazz Band. He says the town could well be one of America’s best places for artists. He rattles off a list of reasons why: The Brewery Arts Center, musical theater at Western Nevada Community College and Carson High School, the symphony’s five yearly concerts, the Mile High Jazz Band and others playing at Comma Coffee, and performances at the legislative plaza.

As for the “Best Places” report, “I’m slightly surprised by it, but as an artist, I find it pretty fulfilling to be here,” he says. “Maybe it’s not the best environment for professional musicians in terms of making a living. But in some respects, I think it has a lot going for it in terms of amateurs.”

Making strides in Carson City’s literary world is resident Ellen Hopkins, a National Book Award nominee and author of Crank, Burned, Impulse and Glass, all published by Simon & Schuster. And the Ash Canyon Poets group has helped foster local writers, such as Krista Benjamin, who’s working on a novel with help from a state literary fellowship and artist grant, and award-winnig poet Bill Cowee.

Susan Boskoff, director of Nevada Arts Council, says Carson City’s small arts organizations have to compete with what she calls “the prevailing entertainment of the state.” She hopes this attention will inch them out of that shadow.

“This helps us in the public sector because we can go back and demonstrate how public funding has helped a number of these organizations grow and why public funding to support the individual artist is so important,” says Boskoff.

Sharon Rosse thinks Carson City is a good place for artists, and she spends much of her time trying to ensure that it is. Rosse is an artist, but mostly, she’s an arts administrator. She helped establish the arts gallery at WNCC, the Legislative eXhibition series at the capitol, and later formed the Capital City Arts Initiative. That organization is in its second year of a $40,000 grant from the prestigious Andy Warhol Foundation, which helped fund things like Erik Burke’s vibrant public mural in the town, as well as an artists-in-residence program and lecture series.

Like many in the area, she’s a bit bewildered how Carson City made the list, but she’s glad it did.

“I don’t know how they all figured out that it was a cool place,” she says.

America’s Best Places for Artists
1) Los Angeles, Calif.
2) Santa Fe, N.M.
3) Carson City, Nev.
4) New York, N.Y.
5) Kingston, N.Y.
6) Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, Calif.
7) Nashville, Tenn.
8) Boulder, Colo.
9) San Francisco, Calif.
10) Nassau-Suffolk County, N.Y.

From Sperling’s BestPlaces and

Carson City arts happenings this week
Durga, Goddess of the Drum, a West-African drumming and dance performance at Brewery Arts Center, March 30-April 1. $18-$22. Call 883-1976, or see

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, by Western Nevada Musical Theatre Company, March 30-April 8 at Brewery Arts Center, 449 W. King St. $14-18. Call 445-4249 for tickets and showtimes.

Before the Music Dies. Screening of film about American music during uncertain times, March 30 at 8 p.m. at Comma Coffee, 312 S. Carson St. Call 883-2662, or visit

Community Drum Circle, March 31 from 5-10 p.m. at Comma Coffee.

Recycled Art(icles), April 2-19, Western Nevada Community College’s Bristlecone Gallery, 2201 W. College Parkway. Call 445-3000.

First Wednesdays Arts Coffee, April 4 from 4:30-6 p.m with the Capital City Arts Initiative at Westside Ink, 710 N. Curry St. See

Photography by Winnemucca photographer Linda Dufurrena is part of the Legislative eXhibition series, through April 6 on the main floor of the Legislative Building, 401 S. Carson St.