Art Works Blog

Postcard from the Central Valley

Washington, DC

NEA Heritage Fellow Richard Hagopian performs Armenian music on the oud, accompanied by his grandson, Andrew Hagopian, on the dumbeg. The performance was given at the San Joaquin River Center in honor of Rocco's visit to Fresno. Video by Jon Ching, courtesy of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts

As you read last week, it's been a busy month! I continued my travels with an Art Works tour of California's Central Valley, starting with Fresno. Fresno has a very vibrant arts culture, and they are very committed to the arts. I met the mayor of Fresno, Ashley Swearengin, in the morning and she really gets how the arts can be a part of community building and economic revitalization. We took a tour of the Fulton Mall, which is just crying to be a hub of a cultural district in downtown Fresno. There are some great sculptures there. Your downtown is really where you brand your place, where the place gets its identity; the Fulton Mall should be that for Fresno. There are all the elements for this to be a cultural hub, and I hope that we can play some role in that happening.

Next we had a morning panel with Suzanne Bertz-Rosa, who is the co-founder of Creative Fresno; David Mas Masumoto, a writer who also happens to be on the board of the Irvine Foundation---he is very in tune with philanthropy and the role of the arts in communities; Samuel Orozco, News Director of Radio Bilingue; and Craig Scharton, the director of the Downtown and Community Revitalization Department for the City of Fresno. They all talked about the importance of the arts in bringing back the city, which has had all kinds of difficulty with poverty, air quality, and unemployment---a lot of the city’s working force is transient. There are real issues in Fresno, but there is also a real commitment that arts can be a part of the solution, which is very exciting. A real highlight of the event was a performance by NEA Heritage Fellow Carmencristina Moreno, who serenaded us with guitar and traditional Mexican folk ballads.

After the panel, we went to the outskirts of town and visited the Pop Laval Foundation, where they are trying to digitize Laval’s tremendous photography, which has both iconic and historic importance. That was a really fun place to be. Then we drove out to the Coke Hallowell Center for River Studies. Even Coke Hallowell herself was there!

Our host throughout this whole California tour was Amy Kitchener, who runs the Alliance for California Traditional Arts. She visited every place we went, including our next stop, which was the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust. Amy introduced me to a number of local artisans, including Julie Tex, who demonstrated traditional Mono basketweaving techniques. We also saw a performance by NEA Heritage Fellow Richard Hagopian and his grandson, which was just wonderful. They played a few Armenian folk songs for us on the oud and the dumbeg. We got a real sense of the traditional and folk arts as they’re practiced in the Central Valley at this luncheon. This has been Amy Kitchener’s commitment for all these years, and it was great to be on a panel where people were talking about how the traditional arts---and arts in general---can be a real force for good in these communities.

Later in the day, we toured the Forestiere Underground Gardens, which is really a whole underground world built by this Sicilian immigrant in the early 20th century. He was a very idiosyncratic guy. Fresno gets pretty hot, so the idea of building things underground made a lot of sense there. There are underground living quarters and citrus gardens and everything---it’s become a real tourist destination. That was a fun tour.

Then we drove to Merced, where we had an Art Works roundtable on Wednesday morning. This was hosted by Staci Santa, director of the Merced County Arts Council. To me, she represents both the struggles and the hopes of arts organizations in underserved and problematic communities. She has a real struggle to keep this arts association going. It’s not easy, there aren’t ready patrons, and there is not easy public funding. But she is so committed and so dedicated to this that failure just isn’t an option. It was just great to see her energy, her passion, and her commitment. She hosted what was really a conversation that I had with her in front of an invited audience. Merced is again a place where I think the arts can make a real difference. I hope that we can do something to help them make it. Staci really was an inspiring force there.

We then drove on to Modesto, where we did a roundtable with artists and arts patrons and development people, and I got to see what they are doing there. Again, there is a really committed arts community there that I think is growing. Modesto is another poor community, and doesn’t have the economic resources that you would like to see them have. This is not San Francisco or Los Angeles; these are challenged places in terms of the arts. But people there are doing it, they are committed, and I think they are going to be successful. Foundations are committed there---they were part of the luncheon---and it’s just inspiring to see people doing so much with so little. I intend to come back. I think I was the first NEA Chair to visit the Central Valley, and I think I will be back before the next NEA Chair is there. It was very enlightening for me, and to cap the whole trip off in Modesto like that was perfect. All in all, it was a very productive trip. I had a great time.

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