It may be hard to remember, but there once was
a time when locals didnt go downtown. In 1996, the Culture in the Year
2000 Reno Arts Commission (C.I.T.Y. 2000) went looking for a way
to draw Reno locals back downtown. Their idea was an event called Uptown
They went to all the arts organizations and said, we have this three-week
chunk of time in July, can you come down to the park and present something?
All they had was a poster, and 30,000 people came, remembers Beth Macmillan,
executive director the event now simply called Artown.
But there still were plenty of doubters. Bill Kolton, executive director of
Sierra Arts, was one of them.
I was hesitant to take my family to Artown activities for the first
couple years, he says. But after being around it for eight years
now, I think its dramatically affected not only the arts community, but
the community as a whole.
Last year, this little arts festival drew more than 140,000 people. Now on
its 10th birthday, Artown has much more to celebrate than the crowd.
At first, Artown primarily consisted of local artists. But as the years passed,
Reno began hosting several national and international acts as well, including
Mikhail Baryshnikov, Marcel Marceau, and the San Francisco Ballet. The 10th
anniversary of Artown will welcome the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Chieftains,
Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Nâ Lei Hulu dance company, the East Village Opera
Company, and the Pilobolus dance company, among others. Though, the big names
are only a small part of Artowns attractiveness.
Artown creates a critical mass, because it keeps arts top of mind for
people during that month. Its been a wonderful event for us, says
Bill Kolton. He says Sierra Arts biggest crowds happen during Artown,
and thats led to increased business year round, not just for Sierra Arts,
but for all arts organizations.
Pamela Bobay, partner in the River Gallery and Gallery Cui-ui, agrees.
Every year we have shows during Artown, and every year we get more clients
because of the promotion, she says.
Sometimes that voice of everyone together is louder than just one voice,
so that month has helped everybodys exposure, says Nevada Museum
of Arts Deputy Director Amy Oppio. That exposure helps the community
feel proud of its art.
Oppio was involved in the development of Artown from the beginning in 1996,
and in her 13 years with NMA, shes seen its tremendous growth, in great
part due to Artown.
I think one of the most important things we can say about Artown as
a whole, beyond the collaborative effort, is that it has helped the downtown
river corridor reposition itself within the communitys mind as a place
to spend an evening or go to an event ... its that community-building
thats been really rewarding, Oppio says.
While NMA doesnt plan its exhibits strictly around Artown, like many
art galleries do, and, therefore, doesnt measure foot traffic specifically
during July, Oppio does credit Artown with an overall increased interest in
the arts. She says 40 percent of NMAs yearly 100,000 visitors are tourists.
I do think people are looking at Reno differently, and recognizing that
theres a host of things here, between arts and culture and recreation,
so that as we grow, thats becoming more distinctive, she says. And
its not the image that we had 13 years ago, so thats great for all
arts organizations, NMA included.
Steven High, director and CEO of NMA, adds that while the museums physical
attendance increases for July are hard to document, staff members have seen
Artown direcly benefit the museum in a different way.
Artown has gotten people to understand that the arts can actually make
an economic impact and get tourists in hotel rooms. When the museum was looking
to grow and trying to justify the need for new facilities and more of a presence
in the community, we actually referred to Artown as an example of what the arts
can really do for a community, and in turn, what the NMA could possibly bring.
High points out that the arts and culture industry is unique, in that the organizations
within it dont compete.
The more organizations you have, the more attendance all of them draw,
High said. In that way, I think Artowns been incredibly important
for this community. Its helped us all get better and better.
PROMOTING LOCAL ARTISTS
Amanda Coulson, owner of Dancin Performing Arts Center and Artistic
Director for the Reno Irish Dance Company, agrees. The Irish dance performances
in Wingfield Park now regularly attract up to 1,500 people. Preparations and
performances for Artown now consume most of the companys time. Word has
spread rapidly, and Artown has made her business grow beyond her wildest dreams.
The big guys come into town now, and they watch us,
Coulson says. The business is now more demanding. But Artown is an incredible
thing for the arts and culture here in Reno, and I think its one of the
reasons people are moving here. Theyre hearing about this great arts festival.
For artists in particular, thats sometimes the key to their success.
Jonathan Dummar, a 21-year-old dancer from Winnemucca, has been with Ballet
Memphis, under the direction of Dorothy Gunther-Pugh for two years. Last July,
while home for a summer hiatus from the company, Dummar heard the Joffrey Ballet
of Chicago was at Artown. He enrolled in their master class, and was asked to
audition for the company in Chicago. He begins his contract with Joffrey this
It was providence, Dummar says. I just so happened to be
home that summer. It was the first time Id participated in Artown, but
it had a huge effect on my career.
Dean Burton, a local photographer and research associate with the University
of Nevada, Reno art department, has participated every year since 1999.
I found some campus exhibit space a few years ago, in the Sheppard Gallery,
he says. I created a business card and passed it around at the Nevada
Museum of Art. That space is now a regular exhibit space. It wouldnt have
happened without Artown.
But what about the impact on the community at large? Java Jungle, perfectly
situated beside the river, looks forward to July every year.
Artown benefits us with a phenomenal amount of business, says
Jon Jaramillo, Java Jungles general manager. Theres no rest
that month. That goes for all Riverwalk merchants, across the board. We do about
$10,000 a month better during July. Java Jungle isnt alone. The
entire city of Reno benefits economically from Artown in a huge way. A study
conducted by UNR reports an economic impact in 2004 of about $11 million in
indirect revenue. The average Artown attendee spends about $70 on lodging, $59
on shopping, and $32 on restaurant dining. And 82 percent of Reno visitors during
Artown have said they would recommend Northern Nevada as a cultural destination.
Because the city made arts and culture a priority, they also made sure
they supported all the other arts organizations, Macmillan says. The
changes in our arts and culture facilities in the 10 years have been enormous.
Youve got the renovated McKinley Arts and Culture Center, the Riverside
Lofts and Sierra Arts Gallery, the new Hawkins Amphitheater at Bartley Ranch,
the Pioneer Plaza, the new museum, Stremmel Gallerys been completely redone
... I think Artowns been a major player in all of that.
ARTS GROUPS UNITE
Plus, with funding for arts education slowly dwindling, the banding-together
of Renos arts organizations helps stress the importance of the arts.
It seems Artown is getting a buzz in the arts community nationwide. When Marcel
Marceau participated in Artown, his only stops that season were Paris, Reno,
and Los Angeles; the Joffrey Ballet stopped in New York, Reno, and the Hollywood
Bowl. Reno, a cultural mecca?
Frankly, I was shocked when I made my first trip to Reno in 2001,
says Travis Fritsche, company manager for the Baryshnikov Company and Ballet
Hispanico. I had expected a backwards, dusty, almost sleazy community
with nothing but casinos and strip clubs. How surprised I was to find that not
only did Reno have a thriving arts community, but an exceptional one. I have
never visited a place before where every member of the community seemed to embrace
But as Bill Kolton points out, if you bring them, they will come, and it
damn well better be good. Its a challenge for local arts groups and the
Artown folks, to put their best foot forward. So its raised the bar for
all of us. And I think I can say with a great deal of pride that all of our
colleagues in the arts community have accepted the challenge and become better.
Whats next? How do you top whats already been done?
People have been going on about the 10th anniversary, says Macmillan,
but I see the 10th year as the beginning of where were going.
For more information about Artown, visit renoisartown.com or call 322-1538.
Jessica Groach is a Reno-based freelance writer and an English instructor
at the University of Nevada, Reno.