Arts & Culture: An economic engine in Nevada County, CA

A HALF CENTURY AGO, NEVADA County— long known for its rich gold mines and Wild West feel—experienced an arts and culture revolution that has reshaped the local economy well into the 21st century. The county also continues to influence the statewide arts scene.

Starting in the ’60s, Beat Generation member and “deep ecology” poet Gary Snyder, folk singer Utah Phillips and a host of authors and musicians settled around Nevada City, thanks largely to its laid-back lifestyle and picturesque surroundings, including the South Yuba River. In the ’70s, Snyder became the first chairman of the California Arts Council, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

In the ’60s, life-long printer and Nevada County District Attorney Harold Berliner, who co-authored the Miranda Warning, also was a catalyst for an exploding arts scene. At his print shop in Nevada City, Berliner printed plastic Miranda Warning cards for police to give to criminal suspects. The most popular items, however, were his colorful greeting cards and posters.

Berliner often invited Bay Area artists to visit Nevada County and collaborate on artwork, including renowned illustrator Wolfgang Lederer (who designed wine bottle labels for Charles Krug and other wineries) and San Francisco artists David Osborn and Charles Woods, who met as graduate art history students at UC Berkeley.

Osborn and Woods settled in Nevada City and helped transform the Miners Foundry Cultural Center into a full-fledged cultural center for performing arts, a Victorian museum and radio station KVMR.

Nevada City is home to the Nevada Theatre, the oldest theater building in California. It also is home to the Tribute Trail, which includes a public art project funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

For more than a decade, renowned Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser has operated a fiddle camp on the San Juan Ridge, near Nevada City.

The Center for the Arts

In nearby Grass Valley, a building on West Main Street—once a Chevy dealership—became home to The Center for the Arts in the late ’90s. A coterie of artists and art supporters, under the leadership of Jon Blinder, formed The Northern California Center for the Arts and created a facility for artists to learn, create and perform.

“Simply stated, Nevada County is a world-class arts and cultural destination with a small-town feel,” says Jon Blinder, President of the Nevada County Arts Council.

More than 15 years later, The Center has evolved into one of the busiest arts venues and production companies in Northern California, hosting more than 150 performances annually, including California WorldFest.

The Center’s regular offering of nationally known entertainers includes Willie Nelson, Joan Baez, Melissa Etheridge, Graham Nash and Wynton Marsalis, among others. “The Center’s visibility in outlying counties makes it a viable economic engine for the county,” says Executive Director Julie Baker.

Over the years, other longstanding performing arts groups, such as InConcert Sierra and Music in the Mountains, have fostered a thriving arts and culture scene. MIM’s offerings have included singer-songwriter Randy Newman, while InConcert Sierra has presented world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell and the Vienna Boys Choir.

InConcert Sierra was founded in 1946 as the Twin Cities Concert Association to create a concert series featuring talent of “national fame.” Music in the Mountains’ first Summer Festival took place in Grass Valley in 1982.

“Most people would be surprised to learn that Nevada County often offers more theater options in a year than Ashland, Oregon,” says Blinder. “With six local theater companies staging a host of one and two-month performance runs, local audiences often have close to 30 plays and musicals to choose from in any given year.”

Each year, SYRCL’s Wild & Scenic Film Festival draws top filmmakers, celebrities and leading activists to the historic downtowns of Nevada City and Grass Valley. “This festival is extraordinary and commendable,” says English actor Sir Patrick Stewart, who has attended.

All told, the arts provide the county with an estimated $11 million in economic benefits and 320 jobs, extrapolating from a cultural survey by Nevada County Arts in 2010. The Nevada County Economic Resource Council’s marketing task force, led by Debbie Plass, points to “unparalleled music, entertainment and cultural events for a rural area that make it appear like a ‘mini-Austin.’”

(Photo: Lynda Churilla)

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