Livin’ la vida local

Supporting the locals can mean very different things in art, music and food

“Things have to fight so hard for life here because it’s such an arid, dry desert environment. It’s a very special species that can survive,” says Amber Sallaberry, director of the Great Basin Community Food Co-op.

“Things have to fight so hard for life here because it’s such an arid, dry desert environment. It’s a very special species that can survive,” says Amber Sallaberry, director of the Great Basin Community Food Co-op.

Photo by AMY BECK

What does it mean to be local?

In regard to food, the term “local” is viewed as an inherently good thing for demonstrable reasons. Local food is fresher and more sustainable. But in the arts, the word “local” is often used in a derisive way. A “local band,” for example, sometimes refers not just to a musical group from a specific region—but a band whose appeal is limited and defined by the borders of that region.

Local art and music have their champions, but they also have their critics and, worse yet, the masses who willfully ignore them. And in art especially, there’s great debate about funding. Some local artists believe that public funding should only go to local artists. Questions about what qualifies as “local” are controversial in all three categories—though the debates are vastly different, there are commonalities, and perhaps local art, music and food could all strengthen by drawing ideas from one another.

“They are three different arenas,” says Tamara Scronce, a University of Nevada, Reno art professor who serves on the City of Reno Arts and Culture Commission and is the current chair of the city of Reno public art committee. “I do think that there’s crossover in part because there’s creative practice in all three. Cuisine does have creative practice, and fine dining certainly is a cultural experience, like art and music.”


The Great Basin Community Food Co-op defines local by using the watershed.

“It’s basically the three major waterways, the Walker, Carson and Truckee Rivers and the corresponding lakes that they all flow from or drain into,” says Amber Sallaberry, the director of the GBCFC. “That’s what we’ve created as local as opposed to just an arbitrary mileage system.”

For the GBCFC, farmers, ranchers and other producers on the other side of a large mountain range, like the Sierra Nevada, don’t really qualify as local. Though Sallaberry says foods from Northern California locations like Sacramento are still better for the environment than other sources, because they don’t travel as far from producer to grocer, therefore not expending as many fossil fuels.

“There’s also a lot to be said for the taste, the freshness,” she says. “A lot of food that’s picked out of season, coming from clear across the country, in Florida, or south of the equator, has to get gassed with really unnatural, chemically altered substances that allow that food to preserve itself. … A lot of those gasses are not good for human health.”

Local food can have distinct flavors particular to the region.

“We grow a really amazing Heart of Gold cantaloupe because we have such alkaline soil here,” says Sallaberry. “Our berries and our corn—they’re unreal. Hands down, California’s got dibs on really good agriculture in a lot of ways, and they can do things better than we can do in certain respects. But you look at the things we do have like really alkaline soil and really high altitudes—and that sweetens our corn and our raspberries and some of our fruits to a degree like you’re eating candy—just really rich flavors.”

There are other advantages. Eating local honey, for example, helps build immunization against local plant allergies.

“You look at local food systems, and you look at beers and breads that are made with that area’s yeasts, and they have a very particular flavor to them,” says Sallaberry. “That’s why some people like different beers from different parts of the world, because there’s a certain kind of yeast that they’ve been able to cultivate, and it’s very cultural to that particular region. … I like to think of Nevada yeast and some of the species available to create microcultures, whether it’s your sauerkraut, your beer or your bread, as being like diehard, really tough and just amazing. If, on some level, you can activate that within the human body, it says a lot about the food and about Nevadans, because things have to fight so hard for life here because it’s such an arid, dry desert environment. … It’s a very special species that can survive. And I think about that artistically here, too.”

Town and country

“Being in a smaller town, it’s easier to write off stuff as not as good or up to par with what happens in bigger cities,” says Brittany Curtis, the director of the Holland Project, a nonprofit, youth-oriented art and music organization. “I think that’s a huge mistake, because in our town there’s a tremendous amount of talent. … That’s my own opinion, but it’s an opinion that’s backed up by what we hear from national touring acts when they come through town, consistently saying that the bands they play with here are better than the bands they play with all tour.”

Curtis says there’s a trend, especially among young people, to devalue the local community in deference to online communities.

“Don’t overlook stuff that is local just because it’s local,” she says. “There’s this idea that if it does happen in your town, that somehow it’s less valued than if it happens somewhere else, a major musical festival or something. We deal with that a lot. … People won’t go five blocks and pay five bucks, but they’ll pay hundreds of dollars to go to Coachella to see the same band perform the same songs.”

Kelly Edmunson shops around at the Great Basin Community Food Co-op.

Photo by AMY BECK

It’s not clear where that impulse comes from—the tendency to devalue cultural experiences if they happen in your own town—and, in music, it’s not just the local bands, but the touring bands that play at local venues.

“It could be part of that false community, the online community, where people are telling you what’s cool,” says Curtis. “You are part of a cultural space that doesn’t exist in your own community. It’s not a physical one, so you have no loyalty to your physical community. I don’t know what it is. I wish I did, because I think it’s a huge disservice to the cool things that happen here.”

“Reno has a very interesting music and art scene,” says Sallaberry. “It’s got so many thriving subcultures within it that are really tightly bound by community and there’s so much support offered even across genres that I think typically wouldn’t be penetrated. … I think that’s very special about our area. For instance, I think if you live in a bigger city where there’s more diversity, it can become more secular. Where you might not, one night, go see your friend’s harder rock or hardcore band, and then the next night be at a more jazzy, ska event.”

Because the Reno art and music scenes are smaller, fans can’t go as deep in one direction, so they go wider, and are exposed to an array of styles and practices.

“On the contrary of that whole theory, being in a small town can be just as limiting, for kind of the same reasons,” says Sallaberry. “Reno is tucked away in this really unique geographic region … miles and miles of desert and then a huge mountain range.”

This geographic isolation can lead to cultural isolation; Reno is not on every band’s tour itinerary. This isolation can lead to a lack of exposure to new ideas and a deeper entrenching of old ones. The music scene can be incestuous, with local musicians supporting each other because they’re friends, not because the music is actually any good. Some local music showcases are harbors of mediocrity. Local is important, but first and foremost, it has to be good.

“Sometimes people need really honest feedback or they keep creating sets that make you want to leave halfway through or fall asleep,” says Sallaberry. “I’m into supporting local for the sake of supporting local, but I also think a little bit of stress put on that environment can sometimes be a good thing. Compare it to a tomato. The reason we have some of the best tomatoes in this area is because you stress a tomato at the end of the season—you don’t give it water for a while or you can’t because we live in a high desert and are stricken by many droughts, and sometimes out of that comes the ripest, most beautiful, sweet tasting tomatoes, because they’ve been stressed, and they really needed to work for it, and their roots get deeper and stronger because they have to look deeper for water. It can be the same thing for artists.”

Public image limited

Whereas local music sometimes seems as if it could benefit from a little more academic, institutional and fiduciary structure, the structure that exists for visual art can sometimes be the cause of debate, friction and controversy.

“There are a lot of people in this town who really care about arts and culture and that work really hard to make things happen,” says Scronce. “Some things get misguided, some things fall through the cracks, and some—you know public art has to be just that—it has to be public art.”

In her role as a chair of the city of Reno’s public art committee, Scronce hears grumbling whenever a public art commission goes to a non-local artist.

“I don’t want Reno to be San Francisco or Portland, but I think there are things we admire in those large urban environments that we most definitely would benefit by bringing into our culture,” she says. “And no one would expect San Francisco to only cater to local artists. But that is something that many in Reno expect us to do.”

“It keeps the money in the community,” says Jeff Johnson, a local artist known for his neon sculptures. He’s also an advocate for keeping public art commissions local. “The money is spent locally—that’s a huge issue, I would think—instead of taking the money somewhere else. I would bring up the example of that twisting ball in front of the convention center, where the thing broke and the guy said, oh no, it ain’t my fault. I made it to withstand 85 mile per hour winds. But anyone who lives here knows he should have made it for 120 mile an hour winds. A local person would have known that. Whoever signed it off—it’s their fault, not the artist. That was wasted money.”

“I truly believe we create a strong public art collection that has significant national artists and it invites our local and regional artists to step up,” says Scronce. “It forces a recognition that we’ve got to be really professional.”

By putting local artists into competition with national artists, Scronce believes, it could potentially inspire the locals to produce better work.

“If you’re a local practicing artist, and you want local gigs, you got to keep your ear to the ground,” says Scronce. “That’s your responsibility, because the city does put out calls.”

“Well, we never hear about it until it’s too late,” says Johnson. “The big guys have their own grant writers. I think it’s a crime that money is spent—like that bus at the bus station. That could have been done by local people, but were we even asked?”

“Jackson,” by Donald Lipski, is a large sculpture in front of the bus station in downtown Reno. It features a 1960s city bus significantly modified to alter perceptions of scale and perspective.

“It’s all about your individual village,” says Jeff Johnson, a Reno neon artist.


“I think the Lipski bus is brilliant as a public art piece,” says Scronce. “His work is truly accessible. We don’t have very many local artists working in that scale. The engineering, and the execution of that scale is really significant. That is beyond my abilities as a studio practicing artist. Now, I could dream it up, but it would cost additional tens and tens of thousands of dollars in order to engineer it and get it to happen. So artists working in large-scale public works have got to be credentialed to do that or have access to facilitate that, because it will eat up an entire budget, just getting that stuff done. So you’re looking for levels of experience.”

Reactions to Lipski’s sculpture vary along lines of aesthetic taste, and if perceptions of artistic merit are indeed largely subjective, it raises the question if public funds should be used for art at all.

“In the short term, yes,” says Johnson. “The arts infrastructure—technically those are people who went to art school, and they weren’t good enough to survive in a capitalist society in a capitalist way, so they have to be subsidized by the government. The arts infrastructure … spends all the money and none of the money—only a tiny bit—trickles down to certain artists that are approved by these failed artists that run the arts infrastructure. That’s one problem. I believe firmly that if government money was not spent on art at all it would create a golden age of art in our community, where people didn’t do it for money anymore. Or people would actually pay for the good stuff, because the more government pays for art, the more watered-down and crappy the art that’s produced becomes.”

But, Johnson says, if there is going to be public funding for art, it should go to local artists.

“I would love to be paid for public art,” says Johnson. “In fact, I would be a hypocrite. I’m working on something for [Sierra Arts Foundation] right now. But I would say not to worry that art is going to die because the government doesn’t pay for it. That’s ludicrous. It will create a golden age where art will only get better. I firmly believe that.”

For Johnson, a focus on local values is key for art and community.

“It’s all about your individual village,” he says. “That’s where survivability and sustainability is going to be when this whole thing, our whole system, breaks down under its own great weight. The local groups, they’ll take care of themselves better than an umbrella group who’s trying to take care of everyone at once and takes care of nobody but themselves at the top. That’s how we’re all going to survive—by taking care of each other in our village. It’s almost a religious thing to me. To work together with the people we live with.”

“I am a local artist, so I believe in supporting local artists,” says Scronce. “Sometimes I feel like I need to say that. I am a local artist—a professional, practicing artist, who exhibits nationally and does strive for a high level of professionalism in the pursuit of my art career, so I believe in that as well. I am very privileged in that I get to participate in other venues across the country because I’m invited to do so. I think what happens is that local artists get very defensive. And I guess I want to make an argument for yes, I get what it means to be a local artist, and I also get what it is to be an artist who gets invited to participate in national venues across the country, and that’s a privilege and I am happy that other cities are open to bringing in artists from the outside.”

Balancing acts

“We all live in this place that’s called Reno and we are very excited and happy to be a part of a thriving local arts community,” says Ann Wolfe, the curator of exhibitions and collections at the Nevada Museum of Art (NMA). “And we try to, when appropriate, incorporate the works of those artists into our larger, broader program that serves many different audiences—not just the local community, but the national and international community. Instead of trying to marginalize or define artists as local, national or international, we feel when work is of particular medium quality, they’re folded into the larger program here.”

The NMA has an upcoming 2013 solo exhibition by Franklin Evans, born and raised in Reno, and now in New York, and a 2014 solo show by Phyllis Shafer.

“They’re two good examples, but they’re also very different,” says Wolfe. “Phyllis Shafer has a great following within the community and is doing important work regionally, but also her work is incorporated into larger landscape exhibitions outside of the region. Then, Franklin Evans has basically built an audience and following for his work on the international stage in Europe primarily.”

Bryan Christiansen is a local artist who had a solo exhibition at the NMA in 2010 as part of their emerging artists series.

“From time to time we do highlight regional artists in that way, but we try to get away from placing artists into strict categories like that,” says Wolfe. “So instead of defining an artist as local or regional or national or international, we strive to present a certain level of quality of work, regardless of where they’re from.”

“Local” tends to be cast in black and white terms—art is either local or it’s not—but the realities and the ideal solutions are almost always gray. Even in food culture, the position on local is nuanced.

“The local region builds people’s drive and spirit, whereas taking it regionally and beyond builds the complex flavors of it all,” says Sallaberry. In terms of food production, she points to outside speakers at the Nevada Small Farm Conference out in Fallon. “There were a lot of really amazing speakers who could speak well to our environment and that culture of food here, and growing in the high desert, but a lot of the greatest speakers I’ve seen at the Nevada Small Farm Conference over the last three years, they’ve brought them all from out of state. They’re doing really amazing things that are maybe 20 years ahead of what we’ve seen, and we wouldn’t get there in that 20 years unless we had exposure to what they were doing.”

And, from a consumer perspective, enjoying international cuisines is an immediate and accessible way to appreciate other cultures.

“I don’t think there’s anything more defining to a region than its food, its music and its art,” says Sallaberry. “Those three things will define a region and that will set it up for having placement, which is why Reno really lost its mark for a while, because we don’t really have those things for ourselves, we just had this big casino industry—like that was what we were known for and now we have this beautiful opportunity to reinvent all of that.”

“I think balance is the key word,” says Curtis. “Luckily for us, it’s easy for us to champion a mix, a balance. No one is telling us to book less national acts or that national acts are somehow not good for us. And there’s always a local element, especially musically, when we do national stuff. Luckily, we’re in a realm where it’s a positive thing, not a negative thing, to have that mix of local and national talent. There’s still local designers making the posters, or local bands on the bill, and it’s great for people everywhere, not just in Reno, to see stuff from other places.”