ACTA Hosts NEA Chairman: Highlighting the San Joaquin Valley on a National Level
By Eric Cesar Morales, Intern, Alliance for California Traditional Arts
On May 24-25, 2011, the Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), Rocco Landesman, visited the San Joaquin Valley in response to a formal invitation extended by the Alliance for California Traditional Arts. Accompanying him were Jamie Bennett, the Director of Public Affairs for the NEA, and Anita Decker, Chief of Staff and White House Liaison for the NEA. For the arts organizations and artists in the valley, this was a momentous occasion as it marked the first time in history that any Chair of the NEA has come to the area, giving the valley the opportunity to showcase local arts and culture, potentially ushering in a time where the Central Valley would gain greater visibility, no longer neglected as attention and resources are channeled largely to the Bay Area and Southern California.
In his tenure as chairman, Landesman has revamped the NEA with a new brand, Art Works, and has created a new initiative, Our Town, which focuses on the concept of creative placemaking: "Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired." Landesman is an advocate for the way the arts help to make communities more liveable as well as economically sustainable. While traveling the country, he seeks to encounter vibrant examples of this in the communities he visits. As the official host of the visit, it was ACTA’s privilege to curate the two-day experience with the goals of highlighting the depth and breadth of arts and cultural life in the San Joaquin Valley, as well as providing a deeper look at the folk and traditional arts expressions that thrive in the agricultural heartland of the state.
The visit began in Fresno on the morning of the 24th with a reception at the Iron Bird Café, located in the hub of a new artists' live-work space downtown. The event was attended by the heads of the arts organizations of the area and elected officials, including Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearingen. This was followed by a tour of sites of downtown cultural assets and revitalization in the beautiful, sunny weather. Elliot Balch, Downtown Revitalization Manager for the city, and Joyce Aiken, a local artist, shared information about the 26 highlights of the tour, which included public art on the Fulton Mall.
The tour ended with a visit to Arte Americas, where Landesman participated in a public dialogue on the concept of creative placemaking. Featured speakers were: Dr. Jackie Ryle, President of the Cultural Arts Rotary Club; Suzanne Bertz-Rosa, chair of Creative Fresno; David Mas Masumoto, writer and organic peach farmer; Samuel Orozco, News Director of Radio Bilingüe; and Craig Scharton, director of the Downtown and Community Revitalization Department of the City of Fresno. NEA National Heritage Fellow of 2003, Carmencristina Moreno, commenced the event with a masterful performance on her guitar as well as a wonderful rendition of corridos, (Mexican folk ballads), which she sung in both English and Spanish.
The discussion at Arte Americas engaged a full house. Over a hundred people were in attendance and numerous attendees asked questions, voiced their concerns about the state of the arts at the local as well as national levels, and shared their projects with other stakeholders of arts and culture. Participants were so enthusiastic that the event ran half an hour longer than scheduled, but even then, there were still many people desiring to speak.
At the bequest of Congressman Jim Costa, Landesman and his group continued their day with a brief visit to the local Pop Laval Foundation to take a look at the prolific collection of photos taken by Claude “Pop” Laval, who specialized in photographing the Central Valley during the early to mid-1900s. Next on their agenda was a trip to the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust, where they, along with local folk and traditional artists and writers, observed a Mono basketweaving demonstration by Julie Tex and her daughters, Carly Tex and Mandy Marine. In addition, NEA National Heritage Fellow of 1989, Richard Hagopian, and his grandson, Andrew Hagopian, played a few traditional Armenian folk songs; Richard performed with the Armenian stringed instrument, the oud, and Andrew accompanied him on the Armenian drum, the dumbeg. Lunch was provided for all invited guests, and during the meal, Landesman participated in a roundtable discussion. The local artists were given this opportunity to share their work and discuss the pivotal role that traditional folk arts and literature play in “creative placemaking.” Many spoke about how the traditional arts give at-risk youth a healthy form of expression, helping them become productive adults. Key to this convening was the concept that folk arts encourage community development, create safer neighborhoods, and attract local businesses, ultimately galvanizing the economy and soul of a community. This event concluded with John Dofflemyer reading At the Heart of Things and David Mas Masumoto reading The Other California, from his book, Letters to the Valley: a Harvest of Memories.
The day ended with a visit to the Forestiere Underground Gardens, where the ACTA team and the NEA group enjoyed a pleasant sightseeing tour of the area that visitors from all around the world come to view. Baldassare Forestiere, a Sicilian immigrant, created these gardens in the early 1900s over a 40 year period by digging interlocking caves into the hardpan earth of Fresno and planting citrus trees in the fertile soil underneath; openings in the ceilings were used for light and to allow the trees to grow to their full height. The spelunking trek was highlighted by a performance from bamboo mouth organ from Laos. Afterwards, the NEA staff drove to Merced to prepare for the next city in their San Joaquin Valley excursion.
The next morning, Landesman sat on stage at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center to speak to the public about NEA’s concept of creative placemaking. Staci Santa, director of the Merced County Arts Council, moderated the discussion for a room of roughly 30 attendees, who spanned the gamut from traditional arts practitioners, to educators, and local theater producers. A brief presentation by the Merced Lao Family began the event, with four children performing a traditional Hmong dance while playing the qeej, a bamboo instrument that replicates the vowel sounds and tones of the Hmong language and is used during funeral ceremonies. During the discussion, issues were raised regarding the limited grant awards to the Central Valley on behalf of the NEA. Only 30 grant applications were received from the Central Valley and 10 were funded. Landesman’s response to this was to advocate that local organizations be more active in applying for grants, which would demonstrate to the NEA that more attention should be placed in this area. Grant writing workshops hosted in person or via webinars then became a key topic in facilitating the grant applying process.
The last stop on this trip was Modesto, where a round table discussion was held from 11:30am to 1:00pm at the Gallo Center for the Arts, hosted by Gallo Center for the Arts CEO, Lynn Dickerson and moderated by Grace Lieberman, director of the Stanislaus Arts Council. About 20 attendees consisted of representatives from the symphony, opera, ballet, theater, and arts education. The theme in this conversation also gravitated towards the need to increase support of the NEA by raising the visibility of local arts organizations through generating more grant applications. Workshops and webinars in navigating the NEA application guidelines were suggested for this area as well. On a broader scale, additional topics were discussed regarding the decline in audience participation in local productions as well as the changing economic and demographics of the area, culminating in a discussion on how to better serve the differing needs of the area.
The milestone visit by Rocco Landesman and the NEA staff provided an opportunity for the arts communities of the area to voice their opinions and share their experiences. The visit, however, was only the first phase in a long term mission to galvanize the San Joaquin Valley, helping people find the tools to be heard on a national level and to be validated with increased NEA support for local organizations and the area in general. The visit also facilitated an opportunity for people from differing organizations to network, build bridges, collaborate and work together towards common goals, redoubling enthusiasm for the great work being done.
For updated information on the status of future NEA workshops and webinars, please visit ACTA's website at http://www.actaonline.org.
The following video features a Western Mono basketmaking demonstration given to NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman by Julie Dick Tex and her daughter Mandy Marine of Dunlap, California, in Fresno County.
The following video features a performance of Mexican ranchera music by Carmencristina Moreno, National Heritage Fellow (Bess Lomax Hawes Awardee), at the public dialogue with NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman at Arte Americas in Fresno.
The following video features a performance of Armenian oud music by by Richard Hagopian, National Heritage Fellow, with his grandson Phillip Hagopian. The performance was given at the San Joaquin River Center in honor of NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman’s visit to Fresno.