Local arts organizations seek better marketing, more support

In an effort to expand the scope and prominence of its creative economy, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors recently adopted an Arts Action Plan developed through the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. The central recommendation of the plan is to develop a county-wide arts agency called Creative Sonoma, which would provide support and oversight to local art-centered organizations for such concerns as business training and effective marketing.

Over the course of four months, the Economic Development Board worked with the Cultural Planning Group to engage more than 220 stakeholders in the development of the plan, with support from a review group consisting of arts sector leaders. The resultant report breaks down both the current state of the arts sector within the county and the facilities needed to encourage its growth.

According to Sebastopol Center for the Arts Executive Director Linda Galletta, who participated in the stakeholders review group, the arts scene in Sonoma County is currently thriving and primed for growth. “Things are really hopping here,” she said, drawing comparisons to the wine and tourism industries, which experienced a boom in the last 20 years. “Sonoma County is known for its incredible beauty, award-winning wines and fantastic cuisine,” agreed Fourth District Supervisor Mike McGuire. “But we also wanted to become a worldwide arts destination.”

In addition to its inherent value, leaders see development of the arts sector as an underutilized opportunity to draw tourism and further generate economic development. According to Galletta, Sonoma County is home to a wealth of artists representing various mediums, including writers, musicians, poets and artisan crafters. “And that lends itself to the development of galleries and art events and music activities and poetry readings,” she said. Ben Stone, who is the director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, commented that arts attractions may serve as a method for retaining tourism traffic in Sonoma County’s tourist off season.

At its heart, the Creative Sonoma Arts Action Plan identifies a lack of communication between the public and members of the arts sector. According to the report, stakeholders almost unanimously identified a lack of information and awareness of arts and cultural activities in the county. “I think we have a vibrant community, a lot of passion, a lot of interest,” Stone said. “I think they also found there’s really no needle and thread that coordinates and connects everybody.”

The report also identified a need for more integrated marketing and branding, as stakeholders are often left responsible for marketing their own creative events and products. According to Peter Turk, who is the president of the nonprofit Windsor Arts Council, lack of an effective advertising and marketing strategy has contributed to the continued struggles that the local organization has experienced. “We were stretched to do effective advertising,” he said via email, “both of the monthly events we held, as well as just awareness that we had a gallery.” After three years of operation, the Council’s gallery closed in late 2013 due to limited traffic and trouble recruiting members to staff the gallery or support activities.

“Getting visibility is difficult when, as [Turk] noted, not many artists understand marketing or have the time for it,” commented Catherine Daley, who is the Windsor Arts Council vice president and membership coordinator. “What many people and artists don’t realize is that in order to be successful as an artist…the artist is basically a start-up company with one person (the artist) as CEO, COO, sales and marketing, customer support, accounting and still having to produce a product. Unless, of course, there is support elsewhere.”

Major initiatives for Creative Sonoma include developing technical assistance for artists in the form of professional practices training, which may include skills such as marketing, grant writing and proposal development. The report also mentions the possibility for the county to develop a public art program and development of artist studio and live-work spaces. To facilitate more effective marketing, the report recommends the development of a comprehensive arts and events calendar, as well as a county-sponsored website and an app for smart phones that would provide access to information about venues, events and arts-related businesses. Other plans include the development of arts education programs and a national or international festival of the arts.

For its first year of operation, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has appropriated around $250,000 in funds to facilitate the development of Creative Sonoma. For two or three years, the Economic Development Board plans to act as its host agency. The first initiatives of Creative Sonoma, according to Stone, include building a website and smart phone app to facilitate initial connections among artists.

According to McGuire, the county is pursuing a nationwide search for an executive director to head Creative Sonoma. Plans are also in the works to develop a board that would conduct Creative Sonoma’s initial meetings. “We need to develop internal operation policies, and structure and budget,” McGuire said, with cohesiveness in governance and funding, as has already been established with such entities as Sonoma County Tourism and wine sector.

While the Windsor Arts Council is currently struggling to stay active, both Turk and Daley remain hopeful that the renewed county-level commitment to developing the arts sector may trickle down to the Windsor community.

“We don’t get any support either locally or county-wide,” Turk said. “We’ve been out there on our own.” According to Turk, the Council has had difficulty drawing support from the Town, or from the Arts Council of Sonoma County, which dismissed its staff due to funding challenges in 2013. “I had other members of the board that had tried to bring proposals forward to [The Arts Council of Sonoma County] and got no response,” he said. “Quite honestly it was a rather ineffective group.”

“I am not one of those who has a paying day job,” Daley said.

“I hope that this plan helps artists like myself… I would like to see Windsor, along with Sonoma County, become a thriving community where the arts are alive and well,” she added.

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