Art as an Economic Engine

When I decided to move to the Sierra 22 years ago, I initially thought it was about being closer to rivers for rafting and trails for hiking. Maybe also the appeal of fewer people and less traffic. I am an “introvert,” after all.

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But once I got here, I realized that what I really loved about living in western Nevada County was the local radio station, KVMR; the live stage, Foothill Theatre Company (sadly no longer in business); and the incredible music scene – from bar bands at The Crazy Horse Saloon to festivals at the Fairgrounds.

Well, there’s a new name to add to that list: The Center for the Arts in Grass Valley, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. The Center started out as a car dealership in the ‘40s; then it was a beauty school, followed by a gym and dance center, and, for a short time, even a video production facility. In 2001 the community came together in the person of Jon Blinder, with funding from a local mortgage brokerage, to buy and renovate the building. Two years later Blinder donated the building to the non-profit Center for the Arts (The Center).

I totally understand the desire to “recreate” yourself in your ‘50s, but The Center is so much more than just a building. Julie Baker, The Center’s Executive Director since 2009, and The Center’s Board have taken this wonderful community gem and used it to create a regional hub for the arts. With music, dance, theater, film, visual art, comedy, youth arts education and literature programs – and a facility boasting a Main Stage, two visual art galleries, classroom space, and a 90-seat black box theater – The Center is able to host more than 150 performances and events a year, serving audiences from 2- to 90+-years-old.

And because the staff and Board understand the concept of community and “floating all boats,” The Center also helps local artists and arts organizations with marketing and production services and collaborates with area non-profits to provide event services and organize joint fundraising opportunities.

While this may sound like a shameless plug for an isolated local business in my own backyard, there’s a method to my madness. The Center illustrates an important lesson: the 2008 economic downturn hit Nevada County hard – we’re still trying to recover. In March 2010 unemployment was 12%. However, at a time when many arts groups had to cut staff, budgets and programs, The Center and other arts groups emerged stronger than ever before. In 2010 the 12 largest arts organizations in the County (including The Center) generated $8.6 million and employed 247 full- and part-time staff, making the Arts the 7th largest employment sector in the County.

So while I spend much of my time worrying about water bond funding, and greenhouse gas emission auction credits, and how to be sure the Sierra gets its fair share of investment from the state, Julie and The Center keep our local economic engine going with Mose Allison, Roy Rogers, Ani DeFranco, Michelle Shocked, Joan Armatrading, The Smothers Brothers, Jeff Bridges, Crosby & Nash, Arlo Guthrie, Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Lily Tomlin, Paula Poundstone, Lily Tomlin, Taj Mahal, Chubby Checker, Kris Kristofferson….

OK, I’m going to drop everything and nominate The Center to be added to the incredible Sierra Nevada Geotourism website that captures the history and heritage of the Sierra Nevada region through an interactive Web site and print map. Oh wait a minute, it’s already there – go check out The Center’s destination page and then consider the ways in which the arts help drive the economy in your community, I’m sure you’ll be able to think of more than one!