Mark Curtis is a brand development manager and co-founder of the Artown festival. He recently turned his branding expertise toward his home town with a new book about Reno. The book hits local shelves this month and Curtis will sign copies at Sundance Books and Music, 121 California Ave., on Saturday, Nov 21, from 3 to 4:30 p.m.
You’ve got a book coming out. It’s called Reno: A Fabled City Finds Its Soul. Explain that title to me.
Well, the theory is that Reno has experienced an evolution of the way we used to be perceived, which was, you know, gambling and divorces, special events and neon—the way the world saw us for 150 years—and the theory is that 1996, the first Artown festival, was the tipping point when people came downtown and said, wow, we have a river here and wow, we like living here. That was one of the first times that we actually started to do something for ourselves rather than our visitors. And not that anyone saw it coming, or saw anything other than some nice arts events going on and it’s still going on and will for some time, but that was the moment in time, I think, when Reno started to evolve into a place we like living. A place that’s that geographically and recreationally abundant and culturally diverse, and now business and entrepreneurship is growing and we’re becoming a different place. And the “soul” referred to in the title is really the Truckee River, which of course Artown was founded on. … There’s a line in the book, ‘Reno always knew it had water running through town but it never really knew it had a river.’ But that was the moment in time where we realized some of the things we have and began to embrace them.
You were involved in that first Artown event. Tell me about your role.
I was part of the arts commission. Karen Craig and I and a bunch of other people. Tim Jones and [Howard] Rosenberg and Christine Fey, Turkey Stremmel—lots of people. And mostly with Karen’s leadership we were able to pull the arts folks together and realize that we had this big geographic setting, and if we could use the arts to bring people downtown that would be a great thing to do. And we were able to pull that off for three and a half weeks in July of 1996. 3,000 people came out for that initial festival, and its grown ever since.
In his blurb on your book, Joe Crowley mentions your concept of “two Renos.” What is that idea?
From the very beginning of the town—at least from the early part of the [20th] century—there really was a great little city here, and it was a very sophisticated little city. But one of the things that we discovered with Artown was that there was this cultural underbelly right under the surface but nobody really knew about it and it existed way back then. The book starts off with this writer talking about the old Newlands neighborhood and we had this nice downtown—lots of stores and movie theaters and restaurants, and we had a nice little city here and then, along with the rest of America in the ’50s, it went away. It all went out to the suburbs. All of it. And then over time, we became more casino street, and things moved out further. We all talk about not having a downtown, but we used to. And we’ve always had this cultural underbelly of writers, like Walter Van Tilburg Clark, and Mark Twain was here, and Robert Laxalt. The book also points out that while the world knows about those Harold’s Club billboards that were all over the world—when that was a big deal—there was also this thriving arts community in Reno that was very active. There’s always been this cultural underbelly and I think it’s starting to come out. Now we’re seeing business, we’re seeing livability, and we’re seeing recreation. We’re seeing all these things happen in a place where we want to live. … There’s a cultural quality underbelly of Reno, and there’s always been, and there’s this other version that the outside world knew about the casinos and the neon and that kind of stuff. There’s always been the arts and the tourism.