For all ages
The Holland Project, Reno’s youth-oriented arts organization, turns 10
Following national politics lately has been a bit like watching a family member get mixed up in an abusive relationship. It’s hard to see a person—or, in this case, nation—that you love continue to make poor choices. You want to help. You obsess and worry and feel like nothing you do is enough. Your own health starts to suffer. You feel confused. It can be difficult to sleep or focus on anything else.
“This is the time when we have to look toward organizations like the Holland Project and say, this is the undeniable positive change that this organization has brought to our community,” said Chelsie Rose Kern. She first encountered the local nonprofit organization, which presents all-ages workshops, concerts and gallery exhibitions tailored for young people, when she was an 18-year-old who had just moved to Reno. Now, 10 years later, she’s president of the organization’s board of directors.
“There are powers that be out there that don’t like that, that don’t like the arts, obviously, or alternative lifestyles, and by looking at organizations like the Holland Project, we can continue to be emboldened by those values, even in dark times,” she continued. “This last week [since the presidential inauguration] has been very trying for me. But I grew up—this current political environment, that’s what my home was like, paired with drug addiction. I could have been like those people, but the Holland Project and some other extenuating circumstances, opened up my worldview to something totally different, and because of that, I’m a totally different person. It is hard to celebrate right now, because I feel like there’s so much activism that needs to be done, but it’s crucial that we look at organizations like the Holland Project and Planned Parenthood or whatever—that might lose funding or be shut down because the powers that be don’t agree with their values—and celebrate them.”Going underground
In its 10 years of existence, the Holland Project has become a cornerstone of the local art and music scenes. As the teen-oriented nonprofit enters its own second decade, it’s still small, but more stable now than when it started. In fact, the wheels almost came off just as the organization got rolling. It suffered early setbacks that would have derailed most new ventures, but a core group of dedicated, inspired people kept it going.
The biggest inspiration for the Holland Project was the frustration felt by teenagers growing up in Reno during the decade or two immediately prior to the founding of the organization.
“Teenagers have a lot of energy, and they have a certain amount of angst,” said Heather Fuss, who was the program director during Holland’s first three years. “And music and art and activism are really great outlets for that energy that’s building and pent up in teenagers. There wasn’t any of that [in Reno]. There were some underground shows, some basement shows, but they were few and kind of sparse. It was in this culture that was primarily focused on casinos. At the time, the casinos hadn’t started to go on the decline yet. So there wasn’t anything set up to keep kids engaged and to keep them moving forward, especially if you were kind of on the fringe and feeling a little artsy. You’d watch movies and see these bigger cities that had all this culture and spunk. I turned 17, and I left the same week I graduated.”
Fuss graduated from Reno High School in 1999 and moved to Seattle, where she found the excitement and vitality she was craving. Britt Curtis, Holland’s director since its inception, also graduated in 1999, but from McQueen, and also moved to Seattle.
“It really made us thirsty for a world outside of our own community, I think, for people like me,” said Curtis. “You’d go to San Francisco or Oakland on the weekends. You’d seek out the kind of culture that your city or your town wasn’t providing for you. It was also why people wanted to leave the second they graduated high school. Reno is maybe a different place now, but for so many people I knew then, it was like, ’Get me out of here. When I graduate, my bags are packed. I’m done. Good riddance.’ That’s definitely how I felt when I left when I was 17. I never thought I’d come back or have the kind of connection to this place as I do now.”
It might seem strange that these two young women had roughly the same experiences without meeting each other, but at the time, prior to the Holland Project, Reno lacked a gathering place for people with these kinds of cravings. Thus, the long-running brain drain of many of the best and brightest moving away from town. Many of those people who graduated from local schools in that era moved to the Pacific Northwest, many of them never to return, although those who did, like Fuss and Curtis, or Noah Silverman of the Reno Bike Project, or Amber Sallaberry of the Great Basin Community Food Co-op, came back with inspired missions.
“OK, Seattle is great, San Francisco is great, L.A. is great, New York is great, but it’s super, super saturated with all that stuff that Reno didn’t have at all,” said Fuss. “I think there’s that thing in you after you’ve been in a place that’s super saturated like that, that if you do have a connection still with the place where you grew up, the place that I considered home still, there’s this desire to create what I was enjoying in Seattle in the place where I grew up.”
Of course, some musically or artistically inclined young people did stick around town and find meaningful connections in town—often in the local punk and hardcore music scene.
“The scene was really unique, and has always been really great, even going back to the ’80s with bands like 7 Seconds making a name for Reno within DIY culture,” said Joe Ferguson. He was another founder of the Holland Project, and he helped forge important connections for the organization to the underground music scene that already existed in town. “It’s always been a good scene. It’s always had a really rugged, do-it-yourself attitude and ethic, and not a lot of places—there was never really a community center where kids like me could find our voice or find our values or our expression. So we were getting in trouble—skateboarding, biking around town. And all the shows were done, you could say, illegally or semi-illegally in places where it was really a house in some neighborhood or a warehouse, someplace it really wasn’t supposed to be. So I think in order to make art and music accessible and open to a broader audience, the Holland Project was kind of necessary in that realm. The scene only fostered a certain amount of people.”
And although there was an underground music scene, Reno still lacked other important cultural amenities.
“The [Nevada Museum of Art] was not what it is now,” said Curtis. “The culture was just very different. There weren’t galleries really or cool coffee shops, really. We’d go to Java Jungle, which was always a mainstay. We’d hang out all hours at Pneumatic [Diner] or Deux Gros Nez or something, but the pockets of alternative culture or culture that was independent or a little outside the norm were fairly small then. Which was cool in its own way, because everyone still created it—they just created in their own homes and basements, which was still fun, but not for everybody and very limited. … The feeling was very strong that we’re going to do this, let’s make this happen now so that future kids have what we didn’t.”Sour times
In early 2006, Curtis began circulating a proposal for “an all-ages music and arts venue in Reno, NV. Modeled after successful ventures in Holland and Seattle, Vera Reno would provide a safe, smoke- and alcohol-free place for everyone, specifically youth, to partake in art and listen to music.” The early name “Vera Reno” was just a placeholder taken directly from the Vera Project, Seattle’s all-ages youth arts organization, which in turn took its name from Vera Groningen, a similar project in the Netherlands—thus the sometimes mysterious name Holland Project.
A key part of Curtis’ proposal was under the heading “Why Reno?”: “Reno youth are hungry. They are creative, energetic, motivated and active. The city currently has very little to offer youth outside their schools. Young people who like music have little incentive to create and play their own, form bands or promote their projects. Young music fans have very few opportunities to see local acts, and even fewer to see hot national acts. More often than not, young people squeeze into basements to see local shows and small touring acts, or drive four hours to San Francisco to see bigger bands. It should not be this hard. Additionally, in a city that caters so much toward adults and tourists, young people often feel displaced or ignored. Giving them a place of their own … will give Reno youth, for the first time, an outlet of their own for expression and empowerment.”
Curtis passed this mission statement on to local business leaders and other potential donors as well as to Reno City Council member Dan Gustin. Later that spring, Gustin phoned her to say that the city had an unused warehouse space on Keystone Avenue that might work as an initial, temporary home for the project. It was in disrepair and would require renovation, and the loan of the building would initially only be good for 18 months.
That July, Ferguson and Curtis, along with Curtis’ boyfriend, Joe Crawford, and her father, Artown founder Mark Curtis, checked out the building for the first time. By September, they were meeting with other volunteers, asking for input, and developing the space. In December, the organization hosted its first fundraiser, a jump-roping competition. In the spring of 2007, it began hosting small events—including performance artists and teenage bands in the new space. And the grand opening was on April 28, featuring all sorts of live music, performances, art and food.
But by June, they had to move out.
The venue was in a commercial zone, but there were homes within earshot, and a neighbor who was disturbed by the sounds and heavy foot traffic filed noise complaints.
“Despite our best efforts to soundproof, it was fairly loud,” said Curtis. “When he started to really loudly complain and beat the drums, it really turned a microscope on the space, which ultimately wasn’t fit for occupancy. And then a noise complaint issue went to safety concerns about the building. There weren’t sprinklers. There wasn’t proper exiting for the size of the space. … We put all this time and energy into the place, and we didn’t have any more.”
At that point, the very young nonprofit organization did not have the funds to bring the building up to code.
“We were building something in a really hard time, anyway,” said Curtis. “And we were babies. We had no legitimacy or credibility in our community because we hadn’t done anything yet, so we didn’t have a funding base or donors. We had a couple people that had supported us through grants that we had written, but very minimal. And the kicker to it all was that the space was slated to be torn down. I mean, it’s still standing today, which is funny, but it was supposed to be torn down. So it was, ’you can raise all this money, put in all this work and energy, but you’re still going to have to find another space in a number of years.’ The decision was made for us.”
Losing the Keystone space only a matter of weeks after the grand opening created a huge challenge for the organization. And it began a few years of wandering in the desert, presenting events sporadically at a variety of venues, including Studio on 4th, the River School, Record Street Café and Rainshadow Community Charter High School. In January of 2008, the organization moved into a small space on Cheney Street, where the bar Death & Taxes is now. It was too small to be a long-term venue, but provided the organization a headquarters, gallery space and a place for small acoustic shows.
It was a challenging period, but Curtis, Fuss and other organizers and volunteers stuck with it, despite the few rewards, motivated by deeply held convictions and tough-to-talk-about emotions. Crawford, Curtis’ boyfriend who had been part of the first group to check out the Keystone space, had died suddenly in April, just as the organization presented its first few shows.
“I felt very rooted all of a sudden in Reno,” Curtis said. “I didn’t want to go back to Seattle. I only thought I’d be here for a year, and that this project would be easy, and then I’d go back to my life. When that happened, I think it really rooted me here. It erased whatever vision of the future I thought I had. And I also felt like I owed it to him. … My dedication to Holland and to Reno all of a sudden became very fever pitched, very intense. It felt like this was now my mission. He was part of the whole beginning. He was there when we first looked at the space. He donated all of our light and sound equipment—speakers that we still use. … So there was a lot of really intense emotion for me in it. For other people, it was the same, but for different reasons.”Changes
Although she’s now the president of the board, back in 2007, Kern was one of the teens who attended the grand opening.
“I had just moved here for school, kind of, and in part due to some pretty serious familial issues,” she said. “I was 18 years old, and I grew up in Las Vegas, which—maybe not so much now—but was really devoid of anything countercultural or anything that I really identified with. … I feel super corny saying it, but the Holland Project changed my life. I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t have any connections, but I also grew up in a poor, working class family, which, I think, right now, is the archetype of the Trump voter. So I grew up in that. I grew up in a very controlling environment, but the Holland Project gave way to this whole world that I didn’t know existed, and it changed my life. I just continued going to shows, going to art shows, going to events, the double dutch competitions. All this really rad shit that the Holland Project was doing molded my worldview and who I am as an adult. … Without the Holland Project, I could have ended up just like any of my other siblings. I have three siblings, and my older brother is a year older and my younger brother is a year younger, and they didn’t get out of that environment or have any positive influences, and they’re heroin addicts, to be frank, and are not necessarily good people. But the Holland Project put in place alternative role models. … I had never seen any examples of that—that you could be alternative and positive and make good changes in your community, and you don’t have to hate everything or be repressive in the way that you live your life.”
Another one of the “first generation” of teens who went to early Holland events was Clark Demeritt, who started going to Holland events when he was 16 and eventually served as its music director from 2010 to 2015. “I remember going there and Britt and Heather being really, extremely welcoming,” he said. “They treated you like a peer. They asked you questions and actually cared and were interested. And I just started going to everything. No matter what they had, I just went to anything Holland was doing. … Before that, I would hang out at the skate park and, like, drink. And going to Holland, I just stopped doing that. It actually made me not drink at all, because it seemed cooler not to, which is weird. As a teenager, it was weird to find the place that would turn you away from that.”
He was only 19 when he became the organization’s music director.
“They really put their all-ages money to their all-ages mouth,” he said. “’Yeah, you’re 19? Go for it.’ The experience was fantastic. It will always be one of the best times of my life—meeting all these people in Reno and helping kids out, and meeting all these people from abroad and being an ambassador for Reno made me really proud to be from Reno, showing people around.”
In 2011, the organization moved into its current location on Vesta Street, near the southern end of Wells Avenue and the area that nowadays people refer to as midtown. After a few years, the organization decided to buy its building, and launched a fundraising campaign to do so, which was ultimately successful, enabling the nonprofit to buy the building in late 2015.
In its time in the neighborhood, staffers of the organization say they’ve seen changes in the area—both good and bad. The good has included the recent opening just around the corner of Our Center, which houses an LGBTQIA+ advocacy group. The bad has included some ongoing negative effects of gentrification, including rising rents for nearby residential and commercial properties.
“The neighborhood, Wells, has always been such a vibrant, Hispanic-driven neighborhood that that kind of gentrification, some out-of-town dude snatching stuff up, raising rents and kicking out longstanding businesses really freaks all of us out,” said Curtis. “It’s a real problem, and it’s exactly what propelled us to buy the building. … The rooting of ourselves has been such a theme in Holland’s history—where is our place? Where do we do this thing? And the risk of losing that yet again was really terrifying for us especially with no real place to go. … For us, securing the building now secures our future and our longevity in our community with stability for years to come.”The future
Fuss attributes Holland’s ongoing success to its collaborative spirit. Over the years, the nonprofit has partnered with the Nevada Museum of Art, the Pioneer Center for the Arts, the Reno Bike Project, Boys & Girls Club, Artown, the City of Reno and many more businesses, nonprofits and others. And because it’s driven by young people and their ever-changing tastes, the aesthetics of the venue tend to change regularly. For instance, many of the early shows were punk and hardcore, but that shifted more toward psych-rock a few years in, and in the last year or two, there’s been a lot more hip-hop. But the open-ended framework remains solid.
“As long as Holland stays true to its mission and vision that we set up from the very beginning, it will always be a reflection of the youth culture,” said Ferguson. “It’s not like, here’s a bunch of old people telling us what to listen to and what to do. … That culture is for the youth. It’s not punk. It’s not hip-hop. It’s not hardcore. It’s not metal, whatever. It’s a youth cultural thing. It’s for kids to do. Because you know Reno is just naturally a 21-plus town. If you’re not 21, you’re not shit in that town—because of the culture, because of gambling, because of drinking. … We knew that, and that’s why we started that place.”
Brigdon Markwad, who has been Holland’s music director for about a year and counting, was only 11 years old when the organization started back in 2007, but now he helps steer the bus. He said that, even during his time with the organization, he’s seen many new faces start appearing regularly at events, many of them younger teens and many of them politically motivated.
“Providing an outlet in these troubling times and providing a safe place for people to go when they’re being threatened is incredibly important,” he said. “I think now more than ever … high schoolers, young people are really upset about a lot of this. Even if they’re not old enough to vote. They’re influenced by this, are strongly affected by this, just because you get bombarded with it on social media. You have more access to your friends and strangers socially. It gives young people a lot more access to how they’re affected and how their peers are affected by political happenings, so I think they want to be more involved.”
And he’s cautiously optimistic about the future of the organization.
“It’s easy to say it’s not going anywhere, and it’s just going to keep going straight up—and I honestly think it’s going to be, but it’s not going to be super easy,” he said. “This last year has been incredibly rewarding, but incredibly, incredibly difficult and stressful. Britt, myself, Alisha [Funkhouser, Holland’s gallery director], and tons of other people have put so much time and energy into making the last year the biggest year Holland has ever had.”
“It’s got to be sustainable,” said Ferguson. “All kinds of venues get shut down because they don’t mold to the needs of the people that want to attend, so they get neglected, and they fall apart. As long as it stays relevant, I think it will be there. That’s my only hope is that it stays sustainable and moves on and adapts to the new kids, whoever wants to be there and wants to make a positive impact on that scene.”
“It has a whole new group of people that are making it run—that aren’t the people that started it,” said Curtis. “One hundred percent, I feel that Holland is theirs now and not mine, which is cool. It’s exactly what it should it be. It’s exactly as the organization should run and function. It’s a young person’s organization.”