Sarah O’Connell, Las Vegas
Sarah O’Connell is the founding director of Eat More Art Vegas, a website that promotes theater across Las Vegas. She’s been the artistic director of the Asylum Theatre since 2003, and she owns a lighting company with her husband.
“When I came here, I realized as a theater director, in order to actually make sure the work I was doing had the most support and had an audience, I was going to have to become much more of an arts advocate,” said The San Francisco Bay Area native.
When O’Connell first moved to Las Vegas in 2002, arts groups in the city were hard to find, and theater companies were well kept secrets. This, and the economic downturn in 2008, inspired her to create Eat More Art Vegas in 2015, which allows theater companies to promote themselves for free.
Her aim is for Eat More Art Vegas to be a catalyst between the arts and businesses. “They tend to be apples and oranges trying to talk to each other,” she said.
In 2019, O’Connell and Eat More Art Vegas started the Vegas Arts Table, a monthly open meeting where artists can share what they’re up to and look for partners and support. However, the Vegas Arts Table has had to go virtual, which O’Connell believes is a negative and positive thing.
“Everyone knows they can just talk to the table and meet new people every month—a low-key and easy way for people to wander in and get to know people, and so it’s a little scarier for people to click on a link and talk to strangers in a Zoom call,” said O’Connell. “But, at the same token, you have a lot of people reaching out who used to just stick to themselves. Some people are coming out of the woodwork now.”
With theater doors closing across the country, O’Connell quickly realized that arts advocacy would have to be her main job moving forward. She feared for the erasure of the arts community, artists’ mental health and well-being, and feared for the people who’d get evicted from their homes. She began circulating a petition to protect people from being evicted. The petition had 10,000 signatures within four days and gained attention from the media.
“People actually saw the need and it actually did a lot of good right away,” said O’Connell. “Usually, it takes a long time for advocacy to work.”
Her arts advocacy continues as she finds alternatives to keeping her theater company alive. Her goal is to avoid starting from scratch. Resources have been limited, and it’s become a question of who to ask for help—and who even has help to give.
“Financially, we’re having to ask for support for something that can’t actually fully do its job,” she said. “So trying to get people to put money into things like keeping a theater company alive when you can’t actually host theater, you’re trying to convince people to preserve for the future.”
There’s been a limited amount of pandemic relief funding for the theater community. O’Connell is also looking into private foundation funding and sponsorships.
“[Theater erasure] is kind of unnecessary,” she said. “We could just hold onto this and build on it. We don’t have to let it go and miss it. If you have a world without art, you can’t imagine anything.”
Tony Manfredi, Carson City
Tony Manfredi, Executive Director at the Nevada Arts Council, majored in arts and communications in college, worked as a graphic designer, and has long been a landscape painter.
“I’m really passionate about the critical need and nature of the arts and what it does for us,” he said. “I mean, for everyone in the world. It’s such a driver of creativity, of innovation, of prosperity. It’s this fundamental component of who we are.”
In the three years Manfredi has led the organization, some of his main jobs have been strategic direction, overseeing programming, and managing the agency’s budget.
“We’re a granting organization, and we provide funding for artists and arts organizations,” said Manfredi. “We also have program areas that focus on individual artists, focus on community development, and focus on arts education.”
In 2020, the Nevada Arts Council has been busier than ever, facing what Manfredi calls “quite challenging and amazing changes.” The agency has reconfigured its site and held statewide virtual meetings. The meetings have brought people together to talk about what’s been happening with their respective organizations and individual artists.
“Typically organizations and businesses are working on planning and planning ahead,” said Manfredi. “It’s funny, we’ve gone from a shift of getting back to normal and more like, let’s plan on this being the new normal,”
The Nevada Arts Council received $442,000 dollars in CARES Act funding. Manfredi said that his staff had to do a lot of work fast to get the funds distributed.
“We had to determine what these grants were going to look like, how we move forward with that,” he explained. “How do we make sure we’re getting this money as fast as we possibly can with … the authority that is available to us?”
According to a study conducted by the United States Bureau of Economic Analysis in 2017, arts and culture production contributed to 8.7 billion to the Nevada economy, which accounts for approximately 40,911 jobs. (The 2017 figure is the most recent available.)
In 2020, those numbers dropped drastically. Final figures haven’t been tallied yet, but it’s clear that arts groups are suffering. Still, as much as Manfredi looks forward to the pandemic’s ending, he has high hopes for the arts and culture sector, and all of its members.
“It’s been fascinating to see how certain organizations, depending upon work that they do, have been able to use that creative spirit,” he said. “One of the benefits of this arts and culture industry is this creative innovation.”
Tia Flores, Reno
Fourth generation Nevadan Tia Flores wears many hats in the art world. When she isn’t working on her desert and ancestral-inspired art, she’s advocating for the arts. She’s been program director of Sierra Arts Foundation for the last four years and a board member of Cultural Alliance Nevada (CAN) for seven.
Flores explained the main part of her Sierra Arts job: “We hire literary, performing, and visual artists for our Arts in Education programs. And we hire musicians for our Elder Care Concert Series and healing arts programs.”
“That’s probably the most enjoyable part of my job, helping those working artists in all the different art fields to continue their dream of being working artists,” she said. “So, we create avenues and venues for them and support them in professional development.”
To help artists, Flores and the Sierra Arts bring in grant funding and distribute the funds to artists.
“We mainly want to maintain the talent in our community because if they don’t find they can make a living, they end up leaving the area, which is really sad,” Flores said. “We don’t want to lose that talent.”
Working with CAN, a non-partisan arts advocacy organization, has helped Flores advocate on a statewide level. As a board member, she looks for funding for organizations and policies that support the arts.
Due to the pandemic and its hit to the arts community, her advocacy has taken on a different approach. Flores said that Sierra Arts has found some workarounds to all of the canceled events and programs, for example, videotaped classes and concerts.
“The number one thing is that we need to hire these artists,” she said. Sierra Arts created a relief fund for Washoe County artists, including performing artists, literary artists, and visual artists.
“It’s not a lot of money, but the feedback that we’ve received back from the artists is extremely grateful because it helped them pay their rent bill that day,” said Flores. “It may pay their car payment or just get them groceries for that week. We’re still hitting the pavement hard on that, trying to get that funded as well.”
Flores has had to rethink and relearn things because of the pandemic. Aside from the monetary impact on the arts community, she said she misses her creative in-person discussions and her impromptu meetings with artists, something she doesn’t get with social alternatives like Zoom and Google Meet.
“That’s what lights you up as somebody that works in programming; that’s what gives you purpose,” she said. “And as somebody that works in the advocacy part, that’s what gives you meaning. It’s challenging times, but … we just need to be optimistic about it.”
The pandemic’s impact on Nevada’s art community has also inspired her to get more personal with artists. She stands in solidarity with the artists and checks in on them often.
“Artists are resilient. We will continue to make art. We will continue to perform,” Flores said. “We will continue to write no matter what happens because we are creative beings. We are natural problem solvers.”
Wendy Kveck, Las Vegas
Wendy Kveck is an artist and art professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She also founded the Desert Arts Action Coalition, along with artist and arts advocate Elizabeth Colón Nelson and a small group of Las Vegas artists.
“Our objectives were to educate ourselves about the issues that were important to us and our communities, to learn how to participate in the 2017 Nevada Legislative session, and to be more engaged citizens and voters,” said Kveck in an email interview.
Before the pandemic, the Desert Arts Action Coalition met regularly with guest speakers, activists and organizations, including the Sierra Club, Save Red Rock, NARAL Nevada, Battle Born Progress and Progressive Leadership Alliance. They’d discuss issues including equality, environmental protections, the protection of Dreamers, immigrants, public education and healthcare.
Kveck co-organized a Department of Art First Friday non-partisan Get Out the Vote art event with her students, colleagues, and community members. “I do feel that mentorship and teaching art are a natural form of arts advocacy,” she said.
During the pandemic, Kveck and her colleagues have been working on policy.
“We started this organizing by drafting a letter-as-value-statement to Gov. Sisolak from the Nevada Arts Community a couple of weeks ago,” her email read. “It was crowd-sourced through an online artists’ survey and voiced our concerns about the 31st Special Session addressing the budget shortfall and pending cuts due to COVID, our solidarity with Black Lives Matter, and the need to address systemic racism and police and justice reforms.”
The letter also emphasized “how the arts and humanities are vital to our communities, now more than ever.”
Megan Berner, Reno
Reno native Megan Berner is an artist and has been the Public Art Program Coordinator for the City of Reno for the last three years. She has overseen grants and project-managed art commissions. She has also managed and maintained a large collection of public art throughout Reno, which consists of permanent and temporary artwork like sculptures and murals.
Berner and the City of Reno also grant money to nonprofit organizations that are working on arts and culture-related events and programming within city limits.
“A lot of the stuff we fund, for example, is the Holland Project, which is a local arts and culture nonprofit, the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival and its InterACT [education] program, and the Nevada Museum of Art and their hands-on programming and scholastic art awards,” said Berner.
Reno’s is the only city government in Nevada that has grant programs for nonprofit organizations. Though the reason behind this is unclear, Berner believes it may have something to do with Reno’s history, artistic reputation, and local government.
“We were sort of on the early end of cities to develop these [arts and culture] departments within their governments,” she said. She believes Burning Man and other opportunities have encouraged artists to move into the Reno area and stay. She also credits Mayor Hillary Schieve’s attitude toward the arts.
“[We have] a supportive mayor who understands how the arts can economically affect the city, bring tourism, and create a space citizens want to be in,” Berner said.
What’s changed during the pandemic? Mostly the way the money is flowing. The City of Reno received CARES Act funding and plans to subgrant the funds to local arts and culture organizations. [Disclosure: Double Scoop is among the finalists for this funding.]
“One big thing is that our normal grant program is on hold,” Berner added. “Most of our arts budget—a lot of our arts commission budget—comes from room tax, which right now is sort of an unknown because casinos were closed for a while, and now things are not operating at full capacity.”
Organizations and commissions deemed non-essential by the city are currently on hold, and there’s a hiring and spending freeze, too. However, the City of Reno and Berner have continued pre-pandemic contracted projects and look forward to completing them.